The detention of a 12-year-old boy who identified himself as a student journalist at an anti-government protest on Sunday has put the spotlight on the emergence of child reporters and sparked a debate on launching a press accreditation system in Hong Kong.
Sporting a fluorescent vest that bore the word "PRESS" at Harbour City mall in Tsim Sha Tsui, the boy who volunteered for Student Depth Media, a student-run news organisation set up in February, was accused by an officer of taking part in "illegal child labour" and was taken to a nearby police station.
He was released in the evening without being charged. Police warned him that if he were spotted on similar occasions in the future, his mother would be prosecuted for not knowing how to protect him, the mother said later.
The boy belongs to one of several student-run online media platforms that sprang up during the anti-government movement which erupted in opposition to the now-withdrawn extradition bill in June last year.
Many young journalists from online media platforms have since been spotted at protest front lines, reporting alongside journalists from traditional media outlets.
During Sunday's police clearance action in Mong Kok, there were occasions when dozens of journalists were pointing their cameras at police.
Police have accused some people of disguising themselves as reporters while actually staging demonstrations and hindering the force's operations.
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Though social media has been abuzz with words of encouragement for the boy for his passion to be a reporter at such a young age, some educators said minors should avoid covering protests because the events could turn dangerous at any moment.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, a former journalist, urged the government to establish an official press accreditation system, saying children were putting their safety at risk in its absence by reporting from protest venues.
Leung, from the Business and Professionals Alliance, said on Monday such a system could also prevent people from disguising themselves as reporters.
Various journalists' associations have previously rejected that suggestion, with the chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Chris Yeung Kin-hing, again making his objections clear again on Monday.
Citing the example of the United States, he said journalists did not need accreditation to work in that country and it was required only in specific locations such as the White House.
"We shouldn't label student reporters as a problem," he said.
In October last year, some reports suggested that the government wanted to issue press accreditation to journalists, though Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor later dismissed the reports, saying there were no such plans.
Yeung said students had the right to report from protest sites, but they needed to know they could put themselves at risk if they stood in dangerous spots.
For volunteer reporters, especially those who are minors, Yeung said adults must warn them of the risks of covering protests.
He said he only noticed the trend of high school student reporters covering protests recently and was exploring how to help them understand journalistic principles.
He added there was no law in Hong Kong to stop anyone from capturing footage or reporting in public places, but reporters must understand they were doing reporting and nothing else.
They are reporters, not participants or protesters," he said. "For young student reporters, they should be mindful of their emotions … Anyone could be easily affected by emotions and act inappropriately."
Student Depth Media says on its Facebook page that it was set up in February this year by eight students from various secondary schools. It has about 34,000 "likes" on Facebook.
It did not respond to requests for interviews sent through email and on its Facebook page.
At least seven student-run online media outlets have been set up in the past few months, including Student Depth Media, Cohesion Media and Hong Kong Daily. Some reporters from these outlets have reported from various protest venues, according to their Facebook posts.
Wilson Li Chung-chak, a 23-year-old City University student, has been a student reporter since he was 16. He started writing on technology in 2013 for a website, and went on to write on politics for another outlet after the 2014 Occupy movement that paralysed the city for 79 days.
Having been a protester himself, he said he knew how to stay safe at such demonstrations.
But Li, who now freelances for a British media company, said it could be dangerous for those as young as 12 to cover protests.
"If you're just 12 years old, can you react fast enough when it gets dangerous?" he said. "I wouldn't encourage students that young to cover these events."
Professor Clement So York-kee, from Chinese University's school of journalism and communication, said those who were too young and were not professional reporters should not be reporting from protest venues.
"Age is indeed a problem. You haven't received the training to know [how to report from protests], and you don't have the experience. You wouldn't know how to protect yourselves. Please don't do this," he said.
The government said on Monday it was "extremely dangerous" for underage people to do news reporting at protests as student journalists.
"One can imagine how difficult it is for a child aged 12 or 13 to handle the complex and ever-changing situation at such scenes. We are very worried that there are organisations arranging for young students to work as volunteer reporters. They totally disregard the young students' safety and are extremely irresponsible," it said.
Education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen said he was angry that police took away the 12-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl from the same media platform on Sunday, but said student reporters should stay away from such conflicts because they could be dangerous.
In a statement, the Hong Kong News Executives' Association hit out at police for treating some reporters "violently". On the 12-year-old student reporter, it said it was not suitable for juveniles to report from conflict sites and asked parents and teachers to pay attention to them.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei
South China Morning Post