A national security storm in two pictures

Apple Daily is accused of spreading fake news by publishing a photo of a national security education day event side by side with one about police brutality at a MTR station.

By Chris Yeung —

Every picture tells a story. The publication of two pictures makes a storm. The scathing attacks by Hong Kong’s police chief against the Apple Daily’s publication of two photos – one with pupils playing toy gun and another with alleged police brutality at the Prince Edward MTR station on August 31, 2019 – are a telling case of the weaponisation of the national security law.

Without naming the Apple Daily, Commissioner Chris Tang lambasted certain media for running a picture of the “gun-wielding” pupils side by side with a picture of police officers beating up passengers inside a MTR train. He claimed it was “fake news”, accusing the newspaper for spreading divisiveness and hatred in the society.

Although there is no law on fake news, he said Police were investigating the case and warned they might take those media to court under the existing criminal laws and the national security law.

Tang did not elaborate why the publication of two photos, whose authenticity has not been challenged, with a caption saying netizens have found resemblance of the two could make them a fake.

The simple truth is that Tang is unhappy with the way the newspaper gave an unpalatable, negative spin to the picture of school kids having fun with toy guns at the open day of the Police to mark the city’s first national security education day.

That appears to be a storm in teacup. But the vow of the police chief to penalise the newspaper through fake news law, which is yet to be legislated, and the existing criminal and national security laws has stoked serious fears among journalists and the general populace.

If the same logic applies, anyone who posted the two pictures on social platforms with words linking the kids’ game play with Police’s brutality at the Prince Edward station might be backfired.

And any media outlet publishing pictures of Police brutality (there is no shortage of those photos and video footages) may face accusations of inciting public hatred towards the Police and divisiveness between them and the people.

There is no doubt Tang was targeting the Apple Daily. He said the Police have lodged more than 130 complaints to the newspaper against what they call inaccurate reports, sensational reporting, misleading headlines and the like.

But a complaint is a complaint is a complaint. Any complaint without a ruling by an independent party remains a complaint. The best judge of dubious, substandard and unethical reporting is always the public. Any media organisation that keeps telling lies and being unethical will be deserted by readers.

That the Police chief has muddled the issue of handling of stories by the media with so-called fake news shows a lack of basic understanding about the media. Worse, Tang has warned of invoking criminal law and the national security law to punish those who published fake news. 

His remarks gave more credence to fears that the national security law might become a weapon to suppress dissenting views even though it is a matter of how the media picks and displays photos.

Speaking at a press conference on July 1 last year when the national security law took effect, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Article 4 of the national security law has guaranteed that people of Hong Kong should be able to continue to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, of publication, protest, assembly and so on.

Conviction of RTHK producer Bao Choy deals a body blow to press freedom.

Conviction of RTHK producer Bao Choy deals a body blow to press freedom.

Nearly 10 months on, the threats posed by the national security law on freedoms have proved to be sweeping and profound. Books written by some pro-democracy activists including Joshua Wong had been removed from shelves at public libraries. An activist is facing charges under the national security law for speeches he made at public places. The list goes on.

Tang picked the worst example of fake news when he fingered at the two genuine photos. But he managed to give the best example of how the notion of fake news could be used as a weapon by those with power to gag the press.

This article was first published on Apple Daily website on April 21.


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