Hong Kong police have arrested 77 people for allegedly violating the new anti-mask law since the government introduced it on Friday.
A total of 74 were arrested for “using facial covering at an unlawful assembly,” while three failed to comply with the requirement to remove their facial covering in a public place. The youngest who violated the law was aged 12.
Sixteen people were charged on Monday and Tuesday.
They were among 241 people detained at various protests since Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor invoked a colonial-era law on Friday and then banned protesters from wearing face masks, hoping the new law would help control the increasing violence during the on-going protests in the city.
However, the protesters remained defiant and took to the streets across the city, with face masks on. A number of hard-core protesters vandalized MTR stations and targeted shops that had connections to the mainland.
Any person who violates the law could face up to one year in jail and a fine of up to HK$25,000 (US$3,187). Police can stop and require any person in public to take off their masks. Those who refuse could face six months in jail and a fine of up to HK$10,000.
Under the new regulation, religious, health and professional or employment reasons is a defense for a person using a facial covering.
However, the Hong Kong Journalists Association received complaints from frontline reporters about a number of journalists being ordered by police to take off their respirators, often in an aggressive manner, while they were covering the on-going protests over the weekend. The protest sites were filled with tear gas fired by police.
The journalists clearly displayed their press batches and wore high visibility vests and helmets marked “PRESS.”
The HKJA received three complaints, including from a CableTV News reporter who was ordered to take off a respirator in Mong Kok, Kowloon. Another two cases happened in Wanchai on Hong Kong Island, when riot police violently pulled down the masks of journalists from Radio Television Hong Kong and Apple Daily, the Ming Pao Daily reported.
According to a video taken by the South China Morning Post, a riot policeman who covered his own face with a black cloth asked a reporter in Mong Kok: “Who gave you the privilege of wearing a mask?” The reporter then took off his mask.
The HKJA sent a letter to the police, urging clarification on the new regulation to avoid misunderstandings, confrontations, harassment and possible false arrest of local and overseas journalists covering the HK protests.
Senior superintendent of crime Ng Cheuk-hang appealed to journalists at the police force press conference on Tuesday to give more time for officers to familiarize themselves with the ban.
“The law has just been enacted for less than four days. Even for ourselves and all citizens in Hong Kong, we need time,” he said.
Ng did not apologize to the journalists involved or pledge there would be no more similar incidents. He said the law does not list which occupations are exempted, contradicting comments made by security chief John Lee Ka-chiu last Friday, who said journalists at protest sites would be protected.
Meanwhile, of the three arrested for refusing to take off their masks when requested by police officers, one is an off-duty paramedic.
The paramedic, who works for the Tsuen Wan Fire Station, went to Yuen Long after work. He was stopped and searched by police when he got off a bus. It was understood that the paramedic had been ill for some time and wore a face mask, the Oriental Daily reported.
Police later went to Tsuen Wan Fire Station to conduct a search.
Kong Wing-cheung, the acting chief superintendent of the police’s public relations branch, confirmed that the paramedic was arrested as he did not take off his mask after police requested him to and gave no reasonable excuse for using the mask.
Kong also defended officers who were filmed kicking a protester in San Po Kong, Kowloon, after he was subdued on the floor, saying the person had resisted arrest.
When asked about video footage showing police officers throwing a rubbish bin and firing tear gas from a bridge down onto protesters on Gloucester Road in Wan Chai on October 1, Kong said the force would follow up the case seriously.