A Toronto-born vlogger and photographer who drew ire for flying a drone over the Toronto Raptors’ NBA championship parade is now facing a backlash over a new video in which he travels to Hong Kong with a fake press pass to document violent clashes between protesters and police.
In a video uploaded Monday, Toby Gu, 27, chronicles flying to the region on Sept. 22. At the outset, he describes the trip as “pretty exciting stuff” and talks about printing off a “fake media pass” and ordering a reflective vest on Amazon to pose as a reporter.
The video includes graphic footage of a man being beaten, and confrontations between protesters and police. In many instances, Gu can be seen smiling and repeatedly jokes about being tear gassed.
Gu said in one segment he was hoping for a “confrontation” and for “bad things [to] happen.”
“I don’t want people to get hurt, but at the same time, that’s what makes footage,” he said.
Gu’s comments come from a second version of the video. He says he deleted the original and uploaded a new one that was “very minimally edited” to “change the tone.”
The new version also includes an apology.
“I wanted to share the brutality, the pain, and the difficulties that residents here in Hong Kong are experiencing every single day when they try to go out and fight for their freedom,” he said in the video.
“Unfortunately at the same time I was trying to get more views, I was trying to get this video to explode, I was trying to get exposure — and it looks like I got that, but in a bad way.”
Online reaction to the video was swift. It has been downvoted by thousands of users.
“Hong Kong is not your playground, Hong Kong is our home. It is not a game, it is about fight for our justice. Shame on you!” wrote YouTube user Zoe Wong.
Richard Scotford, a freelance journalist who has written for the Hong Kong Free Press, bemoaned YouTubers coming to the city “to get sensational video for clicks and likes to boost their online presence.
“These thrill seekers are openly admitting they are faking their media documents, and this puts all the brave and valiant media who have been there every night at severe risk,” Scotford wrote in a Facebook post.
In an interview with CBC News, Gu said he wasn’t prepared for the violence he saw in Hong Kong. He is now getting messages accusing him of being a “communist spy,” he added.
“I literally got a message about four hours ago from some guy [saying] ‘Hey, I have a dagger prepared for your throat,'” he said.
Critics of his video are like “dogs chasing a ball,” Gu said.
“Realistically, I think I should have just kept my original video up,” he said. “There’s no pleasing these people.”
Months of protests
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, now in their fourth month, have often descended into violence late in the day and at night.
The protesters are angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to Beijing’s control 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.
Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has agreed to withdraw an extradition bill that sparked the protests in June. But the anti-government protesters are pressing other demands, including fully democratic elections in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and an independent investigation of complaints about police violence during earlier demonstrations.
Ivor Shapiro, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who specializes in media ethics, told CBC News instances like this exemplify how the very nature of who can be a reporter is in flux.
“All of these things that were once pretty clear — because it was pretty clear who was a journalist and who was not — none of them are clear anymore,” Shapiro said.
He also called credentialing “virtually meaningless” in 2019 — though it is problematic for anyone to lie about media credentials, he said.
“If there’s any core professional value at all that is common to the idea of journalism in almost every place in the world, it is that particular commitment to telling the truth,” he said.
Gu, for his part, told CBC News that he called his credentials a “fake media pass” just so he could get more views.
“The blog logo I have on that media pass, my name and what I’m doing is all real. All the information on that media pass is true and verifiable,” he said.
In the apology section of the video, Gu refers to himself as “almost like an independent journalist” — but he also refers to himself as a “tourist” in multiple occasions throughout the video.
This isn’t his first brush with controversy. Transport Canada says it slapped a $2,750 fine on someone who flew a drone over Toronto during two separate Raptors-related celebrations this summer.
Several videos of the celebrations were shot from the sky after the Raptors’ win, and at least one of them was filmed by Gu, who at the time told CBC News he didn’t believe he was endangering anyone.
Gu said Tuesday that he has not yet been contacted by Transport Canada, but that he expects the fine is for him.