AAJA members on being on the ground covering the Hong Kong democracy protests

Photo Credit: Katherine Cheng

The pro-democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong over the past year was one of the biggest news stories in years, making headlines around the globe. Journalists covering the unrest faced tear gas, pepper spray, arrest, police brutality, beatings, and even gunfire. For the media, being on the streets covering the protests was part exhilaration at getting to work on such a meaty story, and part terror due to the danger.

These journalists are not only brave for risking their personal safety; they are heroes for getting the truth out. Their reporting on the mainland’s harsh crackdown on Hong Kong has brought about a global shift in public opinion towards China, and in many nations, it has reshaped foreign policy relating to the Chinese Communist Party. This is a prime example of the value of journalism. What we do matters.

For N3Con, several journalists who were on the frontlines of the fiery battles — most of them fellow AAJA members – tell us how the experience moved them in different ways. They were on the scene at some of the pivotal moments of the protest movement, like the storming of the Legislative Council Complex and the police water cannon attack on the Kowloon mosque, and they also shed light on less visible, more nuanced stories unfolding amidst the turmoil across the city.

Also don’t miss CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio’s essay on the kindness, violence, and sadness he witnessed while covering the protests, and Heidi Lee’s report on student journalists, who put themselves in the line of fire – several have been arrested – to help tell this important story.

Laurel Chor:

For the last year, I’ve been covering the Hong Kong protests as a local photojournalist. No one in Hong Kong could have been prepared for the violence, chaos, police brutality, and rapid descent into authoritarianism. But from the beginning my career has been intertwined with Hong Kong protests; I cut my teeth as a journalist during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, where I got my first taste of tear gas. I was in so much shock and pain that I cried, and promptly had my parents pick me up to take me home. Six years later, even my dog is familiar with the sting of tear gas, having smelled it on my clothes. After a day of covering the protests, my clothing and hair would be so saturated that you could smell it on me, human nose notwithstanding. 

Being on the frontlines of the protests is often physically exhausting: you’re lugging heavy camera gear, a laptop, water, snacks, a gas mask, helmet… It’s also emotionally exhausting. I’m given a reason to tear up on most protest days: Maybe I’m moved by the chorus of tens of thousands of voices singing the same song. Perhaps I’m angry at the abuse of power that I witness. Or I’m sad to see what’s become of my home. 

But despite how hard it’s been, the last year has shown me facets of Hong Kong and its people I would have never seen otherwise. The past year has also shown me the power of storytelling, images, and journalism in being able to make people all over the world care about a place they might never visit. For those lessons, I’ll always be grateful. – Laurel Chor is a freelance photographer & journalist in Hong Kong

Sheryl Lee:

Covering the 2019 Hong Kong protests has meant receiving lots of kindness everywhere. People passing you stuff like water and an umbrella of their own accord. People randomly coming up to say thank you for telling Hong Kong’s story. People parting and allowing you to stand in front of them, in hopes that even if they can’t see what’s happening, the trade-off is worth it because a million other eyes will. 

With many thousands of people packed together at the protest rallies, reporting can be tricky. The cellular jam will block your mobile phone signal as your colleagues ask for on-the-ground updates. You have to push your way out to the fringe, send whatever it is you have, then worm your way back into the crowd. – Sheryl Lee is a freelance journalist in Singapore

Shibani Mahtani:

I spent October 20 like I did almost every Sunday in the later half of 2019: darting around Hong Kong covering pro-democracy street protests. This time, demonstrators were responding to a call to march from a starting point in Tsim Sha Tsui up Nathan Road. Their march was not authorized. I took the Star Ferry over with my best friend, who was visiting from London, and joined the throngs of people while she and her partner went to the nearby history museum and took a walk down the Avenue of Stars. 

That day, a new dynamic was at play. Co-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Sham had been attacked just days prior by men wielding hammers. They appeared to be of South Asian descent, and some online — likely provocateurs or instigators from the other side — were angling to seek revenge on places frequented by South Asians in the neighborhood. Groups were stationed outside the Kowloon Mosque and Islamic Center, the largest mosque in Hong Kong, and Chungking Mansions, an unofficial gathering place for the South Asian and African community in the city. 

Along Nathan Road, a neat line of people had gathered to ferry supplies to the frontline, gearing up for a standoff with police. Walking down the row of black-clad people, I noticed a boy who was barely over age five. I almost missed him at first, his small body concealed by the adults around him. A backpack weighing down his tiny frame, he picked up what he could — handfuls of eye goggles, stacks of umbrellas almost as big as him, bottles of water and saline — and handed it down to the next person. Behind him, etched in black spray paint on the concrete road divider, was a refrain now common through the months of protests: “It was you who taught me that peaceful protests are useless.”

After watching them for a while, I walked towards the mosque, and stopped suddenly when I heard desperate cries urging the crowd to leave. A police water cannon was barreling down Nathan Road. I waited by the mosque and captured a scene that became the lead of our story and many others that day: police officers manning the water cannon had unloaded liters of stinging blue-dyed liquid at the mosque, the Muslim worshippers gathered there and activists and Muslim community leaders who were peacefully protecting the building — ostensibly against an attack from protesters seeking revenge. The group, who were just standing outside the mosque in the hope that their presence would keep the highly symbolic landmark safe, was left retching, coughing and burning from the impact of the water. It turned out that it was the police they needed protecting from. 

As I stayed to observe the aftermath of the mosque incident — first-aiders dousing saline into the eyes of those affected, mosque-goers emerging from behind the doors with clean clothes for those sprayed blue, volunteers braving the fumes to wash the liquid off the mosque gates — I thought of the boy, who had fled with the rest of the crowd when the cannon neared. Was he safe? Would he be among those arrested later that fall? How would he see the police as a teenager, as an adult, and later as a parent himself? 

And perhaps most importantly: what would the Hong Kong of his future look like? – Shibani Mahtani is the Southeast Asia and Hong Kong bureau chief for the Washington Post

William Yang:

It was another July 1st in Hong Kong, and as they had been doing for the last 22 years, Hongkongers were preparing for the annual march that commemorates the anniversary of the city’s handover to China. What was different in 2019 was the tension and uncertainty in the air. For weeks, millions of Hong Kong people had taken to the streets to protest against a controversial extradition bill that many viewed as a threat to the city’s autonomy and way of life. On this July 1st, hundreds of thousands of people once again turned out on the streets to commemorate the historic day as well as voice their discontent with the government’s plan to pass the extradition bill. 

Unlike most others, who walked towards the designated end point of the march, I joined a group of younger people around the Legislative Council building, where thousands were gathering for what I thought was a peaceful protest. However, as the sky turned dark, the crowd became restless. I squeezed toward the main entrance, and there I saw a group of frontline protesters using rocks, shopping carts and all kinds of objects to hit against the glass door of the LegCo complex. 

As night fell, protesters continued to try to breach the door, and a little after 11 p.m., they finally broke into the building, and I and other journalists followed them. Inside the legislative chamber, some protesters were busy leaving marks or slogans on the wall while others were simply looking around. Suddenly, news came that a large group of riot police was on the way to retake the Legislative building. As protesters began to wonder about their next moves, a young man took off his mask and recited the five demands of the crowd, which later became the universal demands of the anti-government movement. – William Yang is East Asia correspondent for Deutsche Welle (DW), based in Taiwan

Mary Hui:

There are lots of ways to cover a protest. You might be in the thick of the most intense action, engulfed in tear gas and pepper spray, documenting fast-unfolding events on the frontlines. Or you might be weaving through a crowd, observing how protesters are communicating and how businesses and passersby express their support. 

As a journalist, a question I ask myself any time I report on a protest is this: how best can I contribute to the body of coverage? Over the past year of covering Hong Kong’s protests, I’ve learned that I’m better off leaving the frantic frontline action to breaking-news reporters and photographers who are better geared up for the task. That leaves me time to focus on other parts of the protest, and to look at the events not just as a breaking news event but as a broader social movement reflecting an ongoing sociological phenomenon. 

In late May, attempts to stage an anti-government protest were literally drowned out by an overwhelming deployment of riot police, who cordoned off vast sections of the city and were stationed on what felt like every other street corner in certain neighborhoods. I decided to walk slowly through the city. There was no “action” per se, but just as important was to soak up what the streets feel like. At one point, I noticed a team of six armed riot police officers — plus another who acted as a lookout — clearing a stray pushcart from the middle of a road. To me, that quiet moment crystalized the entire day of protest: it marked Hong Kong’s descent into a de facto police state. – Mary Hui is a Hong Kong-based reporter for Quartz