Tommy Walker | Tips from reporting on the frontline in Hong Kong

Tommy Walker reports directly from the frontline in Hong Kong and shares his own insights into the preparation needed.

With the protests in Hong Kong rumbling on since June, news from on the ground has spread far and wide. From a reported 2 million protesters taking to the streets in July, to the urban-battles between hardliners and riot police towards the end of 2019, the mess in between has rocked the city unlike ever before.

During these months of demonstrations, the rallies and unrest have taken place across many districts. Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island and Mongkok in Kowloon have both been common ‘battlegrounds’ whilst the New Territories have had numerous infamous incidents. Teargas, rubber bullets and petrol bombs have all contributed to a wide range of damage throughout the city.

Hundreds of reporters – both local and foreign – have relentlessly kept on the ground, continuing to report from the frontline.

I’ve been reporting on the protests since July. I report directly from the frontline and have been covering the protests with my own raw footage from words, still photography and videos.

My advice is based on what I practice. Other frontline reporters in Hong Kong or future conflict correspondents may prepare differently.

Pre-protest

Route and intelligence preparation

One thing about the Hong Kong protests is that there are high levels of communication. The use of local and worldwide social media platforms provides up to date intelligence. Combined with the respective togetherness from demonstrators and press, this allows information on routes and locations to be pinpointed quickly. English is widely spoken in Hong Kong, and although local Cantonese is Hong Kong’s main language, spoken English gives everyone a chance of know where to go and when.

Protective gear

Protective gear is important in Hong Kong because of the continuous and unabated projectiles we’ve seen used. Although live firearms have been used on multiple occasions, everyday use of these has yet to develop. At the time of writing, weaponry such as rubber bullets, teargas, water cannons and petrol bombs have been the norm.

Here are the basic necessities:

  • A hard-hat helmet is a must. With all the misfires and stray objects, keeping the head protected will save your life. We’ve encountered stray bricks, rubber bullets and canisters, to name a few.
  • A gas mask, with long-lasting filters, is needed. The use of teargas in Hong Kong has been widely documented. It’s rare to see excessive amounts being used for such a prolonged period, but riot police are continuing to deploy. Aimed to disperse throughout large crowds, without a mask you may experience inhalation that causes immediate discomfort. You can also expect excessive burning to your eyes and skin if you don’t have protection.
  • Wearing a high-visual ‘press’ vest is essential. This allows the police and demonstrators to know why you’re in the midst of the protests and reduces the likelihood of being targeted. It is widely used to visibly separate you and define you as a reporter, not a demonstrator. It should be said: wearing a high-vis vest doesn’t completely eliminate you from being targeted. There have been known injuries to reporters – including myself – as well as arrests in Hong Kong.
  • Protective eye masks or goggles are important. Some gas masks will cover the full face, whilst others only protect the nose and mouth area. We’ve seen journalists blinded by stray projectiles, so having protective eye masks or goggles is a must.

The Hong Kong Government placed a ban on the use of masks for all from the 5th of October. This is part of the invoked Emergency Regulations Ordinance. There is a risk you may be questioned if you’re wearing one and cannot prove you’re a professional.

Credentials

Although there is no law to say credentials are a must in Hong Kong, it’s better to have them than not. Especially as time goes on, it appears more Hong Kong Police are requesting identification. 

Devices and technology

I’ve been using my Canon DSLR with two lenses, as well as a gimbal device and a secondary smartphone for live stream and videos.

On the ground

Getting to the front

Getting to the frontline is daunting, but the footage is far more clear and action-packed.

During the protests, demonstrators have often built barricades to slow down the police. These can be a marker for frontline action. Also, following the police during their ‘running of the bulls’ act, will often lead to frontline action. Keeping an eye out, as well as listening to the elements around you will give you a better chance of getting there.

Covering key incidents

With the protests at a stage where incidents are widely spread, it’s merely impossible to cover everything as a solo freelance reporter. At times, there are battles across multiple districts – 18 being the most on one given day – so it’s about reading the patterns of previous demonstrations and seeing where it’s likely to go next. Some severe incidents that have occurred, like shooting and stabbings, no-one predicted happening before. A lot of the time they just happen without warning.

Preparing for police attacks

The Hong Kong Police have reacted both with restraint and aggression. This sends mixed signals to what they are expected to do. When they are on the offensive, it’s best to read the signals and led them to get on with it. Peel to the side whilst trying to get coverage is the best bet, rather than in their face. This reduces the chance of an attack or arrest.

Dealing with the police

During my time on the ground, it has been apparent the Hong Kong Police, at times, have been more lenient with their treatment towards foreign reporters. Unlike local Hong Kong press, foreign reporters have been reasoned with more, but not entirely. Try to be cooperative, get out of their way and if needed, try to communicate with them calmly.

Avoiding injury 

Nearly all the reporters I’ve spoken with, many have sustained an injury in some way. It’s the risk anyone takes in the midst of attacks. The best thing is to stay to the side when there is a standoff between protesters and police; otherwise, you’re literally in the firing line.

For teargas attacks, keeping some saline handy to wash your eyes out is recommended, whilst wearing the necessary protective equipment is a must.

Keeping fit

The protests have been long, so keeping a good balanced diet and fitness level will work in your favour. Light meals, plenty of water and cold coffee will help you battle through the heat and humidity in a place like Hong Kong.

Being fast on your feet will benefit you, as walking and running throughout the day as required.

Coverage

Photography

The photography from the ground in Hong Kong has been exceptional. From mainstream media to freelancers, the output of work has been widespread.

With a decent camera and a good lens with short and long-range for a variety of shots, that’s stage one. Using it correctly, from lighting to modes is another. The main thing is flexibility and timing. Everything is happening so erratically, you need to be positioned well to get the shot. Sometimes you’re right at the front with all the angles possible, other times you’re bustled to the back and without a way forward.

Video and live stream

Videography is being widely practiced during the Hong Kong protests. For my work, I’ve produced more raw, frontline video footage than I anticipated on the request from clients.

There’s a balance of just recording everything than to record key incidents in clips. The main tip is to keep your video device with plenty of storage and hit the record whenever possible. Over time, you’ll have more of an idea of what events are worth recording over others.

Piece-to-cam roundups

Context is widely needed today to go with any footage. In demonstrations like we are seeing in Hong Kong, there is so much ‘action’ – fights, police, chants, projectiles, and arrests – that needs to be explained. It’s all good taking great footage that may look crazy to the naked eye, but there needs to be a factual backstory to go with.

Piece-to-cams are recording with your face looking at the camera, normally with a prominent location in the backdrop. This is an opportunity to explain to the camera what has happened and why, whilst in an area of unrest, giving the viewers a visual insight into what is going on.

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