By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
It’s now more than six months since the protests in Hong Kong began. Summer has changed to fall, and now winter has arrived. The photographs that I see coming out of Hong Kong have also become darker as the days have gotten shorter and nights longer.
Watching the scenes go from massive peaceful marches to violent clashes in the street with police firing teargas canisters while rubber bullets fly all aglow from the light of raging fires and Molotov cocktails is surreal in every sense of the word.
It is the work of photographers like Lam Yik Fei for the New York Times, Vincent Yu for the AP and May James for the Hong Kong Free Press, along with countless other photographers and journalists working on the frontlines who bring the photographs and stories of the protests to viewers around the world. Without their work, the full story of what is going on would never be seen.
But what disturbs me the most are the constant reports of assaults on the press coming out of Hong Kong. Under Hong Kong law, journalists should be able to cover events without fear of harm or suppression. In reality, this freedom is being attacked both physically and through attempts at suppression.
For some in Hong Kong, there have been grave consequences for their work. Indonesian journalist Veby Mega lost an eye after being hit in the face with a rubber bullet. May James was arrested even while clearly marked as a journalist. Some groups of journalists have had tear gas fired directly at them, even though they were clearly wearing vests and helmets designating them as journalists.
Others have had strobe lights shone in their faces and at their cameras to disrupt their ability to record events. With police officers covering their ID numbers, and the government seemingly uninterested in investigating reports of police abuse of power, very few will probably ever face consequences for their actions.
This is not an issue just in Hong Kong. The Committee to Protect Journalists in their end of the year reports on press freedom announced that there are currently at least 250 journalists in jail around the world. And while the number is down, at least 25 journalists were killed for their work in 2019.
Hong Kong is now one of the important front lines in the fight for press around the world. As the new calendar year arrives, things may get darker before they get brighter, as tactics evolve to further try and keep stories from getting out into the public eye. Censorship and suppression of news by authoritarian governments will continue as technology further evolves to scrub news from the internet, and social surveillance of dissident voices becomes more and more prominent.
But as things tighten, leaks will keep appearing. No matter how much things are clamped down, there will always be journalists willing to risk prison or worse to reveal the truth to the world. In standing up to those who would attempt to stop them, journalists are taking a stand to protect not just the truth, but the ideas and goals of a free global society.
So as journalists in Hong Kong continue their important work of telling the truth of what is happening in Hong Kong, know that there are many of us watching around the world. We see the photographs you make, read the stories you write, know what you are working against, and root for you every day.