No place on frontlines for teen reporters

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 May 2020

The detention of two teen "reporters" - including a 13-year-old - by police at a Tsim Sha Tsui shopping mall was an unpleasant Mother's Day gift. But it raised the legitimate question of whether such young teens should be recruited to report from the frontlines where even experienced adult journalists could find it dangerous to perform their duties.

I'm glad that both youngsters were released without charge.

The two so-called "student reporters" had been working for online news outlet Student Depth Media that was formed earlier this year, reportedly by students, amidst a surge in online media outlets. These newly formed outlets mainly rely on an army of volunteers, including students, to livestream events as they unfold in flashpoints.

But performing such duties can be dangerous even for trained and experienced journalists working for well-established media organizations.

The danger was graphically demonstrated in Mong Kok on Sunday. As police subdued groups accused of gathering unlawfully, journalists reporting on the police operation were also pepper-sprayed, shoved and forced to kneel like prisoners while being coerced to turn off their cameras.

A female photographer had to taken to hospital for injuries after she was manhandled by police.

Those were extremely unpleasant scenes, even for veteran journalists, and should be condemned.

It is impossible to justify such ugly acts against journalists and I fear that such incidents will become more regular unless police demonstrate an ability to restrain themselves as social tensions that condemned Hong Kong last year begin to surface again.

That said, it is also impossible to justify recruiting inexperienced teenagers to perform dangerous reporting duties from the frontlines. These are not moments for heroism - they demand shrewd judgment. It's not about press freedom but, rather, the personal safety of the minors.

So while it was right for Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing to express "extreme anger" at the way the media were dealt with by police on Sunday evening -calling it an insult of the entire profession - he should also speak up against the use of teen reporters on the frontlines.

It was simply not good enough for him to say there was no law barring teenagers from carrying out reporting duties, and that they should abide by journalistic principles and not participate in the protests at the same time as reporting them.

Yeung should have called on all media outlets to stop recruiting and sending minor reporters to dangerous areas.

By comparison, comments by Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism professor Clement So York-kee were far more sensible. So said it's inappropriate for young students to report on protests because they are not trained and may not know how to protect themselves.

Furthermore, the situation in Hong Kong has become so complicated that it is no longer a simple question to ask who's who.

But it was alarming to hear pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun using the incident to call for official accreditation for journalists.

That could prove a very dangerous idea to pursue.

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