The Mystery of the Gas Masks

In The Standard, Doug Crets and Leslie Kwoh wrote:

Hong Kong's law enforcement agencies remained on high alert especially after a single purchaser bought 100 gas masks over the weekend, a police source said, raising long-standing fears that protesters would continue the violent confrontational tactics they have followed at other WTO meetings.

In the print edition of Sing Tao Daily, the reporters apparently canvassed the Mongkok area trying to identify the shop which sold those 100 gas masks. There are a number of shops in the Kwong Wah Street area which specialize in military equipment. However, it would seem that gas masks have always been selling poorly, so that most shops would not have more than a dozen items in their inventory. Over the past few weeks, these stores together might have sold a hundred gas masks.

So this may be yet another case of media misinformation. Ah, but, wait there is another different way to blaming the media!

The following is a partial translation from an InmediaHK post by Gao Tao (高濤) titled "The Media Which Wear Gas Masks."

Yesterday, AFP reported that someone bought over 100 gas masks. My immediate reaction was that it was likely that the media bought it themselves.

Right before the first demonstration, a certain television station called for a pre-WTO internal planning meeting. All the editors, reporters, photographers and engineers were assembled in the news department. The executive director was there, in front of a big map of the demonstration route to explain the plan to gather news. He also related his riot experience in the only two riots (the 1967 riots and the 1984 anti-price-increase protest) in contemporary Hong Kong history. This was just like a general going to battle or the Organized Crime squad before a mission.

This particular news gathering exercise is basically treating this as the third Hong Kong riot. How to seize the high advantage point, how to use primitive communication methods in the event of information cutoff, etc. The reporters were equipped with either light or heavy gear. The light gear is a fanny pack with towel, goggles and mineral water. The water is not for drinking, but to use the wash away the tear gas (never rub your eyes with your hands!). The heavy gear would be the gas mask.

Frankly, it is obviously very important to take precaution against riots and protect the safety of the reporters. But Hong Kong does not have any battlefield reporters, and very few people have battlefield experience. All the debate about the WTO has been simplified down to the three demonstration marches, and the looming riots. On the day of the Sunday march, one newspaper quickly predicted that there will be "First Blood" drawn. But the demonstration that afternoon was a carnival in the manner of the 7/1 marches. The television news reporters with the gas masks looked more fierce that the demonstrators. So the newspapers quickly withdrew the related reports back into the inside page, and the traffic accident report returned to the front page.

In The Standard on the following day, Wendy Leung 

The local media have splurged on helmets, gas masks, goggles, respirators and insurance policies for their frontline reporters, photographers and cameramen in case the WTO protests turn violent and police respond with tear gas.  "Personal safety is our primary concern," said Yau Shing-mu, executive chief editor of Hong Kong Economic Times, which stocked up on gas masks, helmets, walkie-talkies and vests with "press" emblazoned in neon. 

Not to be outdone, Radio Television Hong Kong spokesman Forever Sze said that apart from outfitting its reporters with helmets, goggles and respirators, windshields on its company vans will be fitted with typhoon-proof protective wire gauze.  Cable News assistant controller Fung Tak-hung said he is not too worried there will be violence, but as a precaution the company bought helmets and goggles for the 15 reporters covering the occasion.