The Hong Kong police's increasingly hostile relationship with the press has taken a bizarre turn with the deeply unpopular force launching their own rival newscast complete with uniformed anchors and live reports, weeks after repeating claims that protests were infiltrated by "fake reporters."
The claim is something the Hong Kong Police Force has repeatedly aired, but never shown evidence of, as a justification for their wider crackdown on the city's once vibrant media. Late last month, the police announced they would no longer honor press credentials supplied by local media organizations. Instead, the police would only recognize local outlets accredited by the Hong Kong government and those who work for "internationally recognized and renowned" outlets.
It's a move that directly impacts the kinds of small, independent outlets that aggressively cover Hong Kong's protest movement. These under-resourced teams have been responsible for capturing footage of some of the most-pivotal moments in the movement's history, like a shocking attack on commuters and protesters inside the Prince Edward subway station by the Hong Kong police.
"The police only want to hear what they like," said Shirley, a volunteer editor at Rice Post, the organization that filmed footage of the Prince Edward incident in August last year. "What they don't like, including what online media have filmed, they don't want to see anymore."
Rice Post is an all-volunteer operation that posts live streams, photos, and videos of the protests directly to social media. VICE News met with Shirley as she prepared to head out to cover the protests on Oct. 1, China's National Day and the first large scale demonstrations to hit the city since police changed rules around who can be considered a journalist. Three of Rice Post's volunteer reporters were already briefly detained and ticketed in prior demonstrations by police for violating COVID-19 related restrictions on mass gatherings—a charge that journalists were typically exempt from.
"There's this imminent real threat of being charged," said Vivian Tam, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "You don't know who you are, you don't know how you will be treated."
The risks are even higher as reporters who are not considered legitimate under the new rules could be considered protesters at rallies and charged under the new National Security Law—controversial legislation passed by Beijing in June that aims to quash the protest movement with the harshest penalties totaling life in prison.
Shirley, as she donned her yellow press vest, walked into the National Day protests unsure what to expect, fearing she could be arrested.
The National Day protests were unique for another reason too. As police redefine who can be considered a journalist, they are also moving into the same spaces typically occupied by the reporters they're trying to push out—live streaming. The day began with a sequence of live reports from across Hong Kong, all done by police officers offering their own spin on the day's events. On the streets few were convinced, with some cops struggling to file live reports as protesters drowned them out with chants of "evil cops, enemies of Hong Kong!"
"The police can experiment with more proactive media tactics," Tam told VICE News. "They have their own lives, from their own Facebook page, and they have good looking policemen being hosts. [But] they don't have credibility as independent reporters, so I doubt it will work."
The police newscasts were only part of an ongoing public relations campaign that aims to restore trust in the unpopular police force. Recently, the Hong Kong Police Force released a music video promoting themselves as the saviors of Hong Kong that also might have also leaked otherwise confidential operational footage.
The PR campaign comes after more than a year of widely publicized incidents of police abuse and overreach dragged the police force's popularity to an all time low. A recent survey conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) found that the police were the least popular of all local authorities operating in the city, ahead of only the Hong Kong garrison of China's People's Liberation Army.
It's a stark reversal of public sentiment for a police force used to glowing portrayals in Hong Kong's domestic film and television industries.
"The police in Hong Kong history have quite successful cooperation with media companies to produce heroic programs about police stories because in Hong Kong gangster movies or police movies are a popular genre," said Tam. "But now because the public sentiment has a lot of dissatisfaction with the police, the people who are unhappy about police actions won't watch it, they won't support it."
A lot of this dissatisfaction comes from instances of police brutality caught on tape, including a violent arrest of a 12-year-old girl, the shooting of a protester, and ongoing efforts to curb criticism and free speech. For Shirley, volunteer journalists like those at Rice Post were vital to ensuring that stories like these got out.
"Everyone says when there is one more camera, there is one more piece of justice," she said. "This is one reason why we keep carrying on. Maybe I missed something one day, but another person filmed it… one less camera means one less piece of justice."