Hong Kong: The four-year judicial ordeal of Swiss photojournalist who covered a 2019 demonstration
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounces the Kafkaesque situation experienced by Swiss freelance photojournalist Marc Progin, prosecuted over the past four years for covering a 2019 demonstration and who was recently refused compensation for his legal costs despite being acquitted twice.
Swiss freelance photojournalist Marc Progin, 78, has been prosecuted over the past four years under the charge of “aiding and abetting public disorder”, which carries a sentence of up to one year in prison, after he found himself caught in the middle of a clash between pro-democracy demonstrators and one of their detractors while covering a 2019 protest in Hong Kong (see below for a full timeline of the proceedings).
In April 2022, the photographer was acquitted for the second time by the Magistrate's Court, which ordered for his legal costs to be compensated, but on 8 August 2023 a High Court judge, who was one of the designated national security judges directly appointed by the Chief Executive denied him reimbursement, compelling him to cover a bill amounting to 500,000 Hong Kong dollars (around 58,000 euros). Progin has 28 days to appeal to the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal.
“The judicial harassment campaign orchestrated over the past four years by the Hong Kong government against photojournalist Marc Progin, in the total absence of criminal acts and despite two acquittals, is clearly intended to dissuade foreign journalists who would like to cover future protests in the territory. We urge democracies to build up pressure for Hong Kong to restore full press freedom as enshrined in the territory’s Basic Law.
Progin, a retired businessman turned freelance photojournalist based in Hong Kong for more than four decades, has built a reputation for his documentary photography works on scenes throughout Mongolia and China, and extensively covered the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Over the past three years, in line with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crusade against journalism, the Hong Kong government has prosecuted at least 28 media workers and press freedom defenders, 12 of whom remain in detention. The government also forcibly shut down independent daily newspapers Apple Daily and Stand News, while six other media outlets had no other choice but to disband due to pressure.
Hong Kong ranks 140th out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, having plummeted down from 18th place in the span of two decades. China itself ranks 179th out of 180 countries and territories evaluated.
Four years of judicial harassment
- 4 October 2019: While covering a pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong's Central district, photojournalist Marc Progin for a few seconds unintentionally blocked the passage of a pro-establishment supporter assaulted by demonstrators.
- 23 December 2019: Progin was arrested at home at 6:50 in the morning on suspicion of causing “public disorder”.
- 29 April 2020: Progin was formally charged with “aiding and abetting public disorder”.
- 9-16 September 2020: Progin’s initial trial was held at Eastern Magistrates’ Courts.
- 13 November 2020: Magistrate Stephanie Tsui cleared Progin’s charge, citing lack of evidence that he intended to assist the demonstrators, but the prosecution appealed her decision.
- 28 April 2022: After a review hearing at Kowloon City Magistrates’ Courts, Progin was again acquitted and the Hong Kong Department of Justice was ordered to pay his legal costs, in line with the territory’s legal precedent.
- 23 May 2023: At the prosecution’s request, the High Court of the Court of First Instance held a hearing to review the decision to award Progin’s compensation.
- 8 August 2023: Judge Esther Toh, High Court of the Court of First Instance, directly appointed by Chief Executive John Lee and notorious for her pro-establishment stance, denied compensation to Progin and claimed the previous magistrate “committed an error” by acquitting him.