What a Coward Official!

Despite Government's claim of openness, it never fails to reveal embarrassing facts – only after events give it no other alternative.

The recent fire in the Lai Cheong Factory Building in Cheung Sha Wan is a case in point. This was the No. 4 Alarm fire in which Senior Fireman Yeung Chun-kit was killed.

As The Journalist understands it, three major dailies – Ming Pao Daily, Oriental Daily and The Sun – had heard, less than a week after the tragic blaze, that a call for the fire to be upgraded was deleted by mistake by a control room staffer.

The mistake led to a delay in rushing additional men and equipment to fight the raging fire.

The three newspapers duly reported it on March 14. The Fire Services Department (FSD) refused to comment when followed-up by reporters from different media outlets, claiming the incident was under investigation.

On the morning of March 17, information officers of the FSD informed several media organizations that there would be a briefing on fire equipment by the Deputy Director of FSD, Chorkam Chan.

On arrival, reporters found that not all media had been invited although quite a number were present. The criteria for the invitations were vague.

For example, only Radio Television Hong Kong and now TV were invited from among electronic media. Moreover, individual reporters who had asked FSD about the control room erasure had not been informed and only get there in time after having tipped off by other colleagues.

In such an important development, it is extremely wrong, if not repugnant, for the FSD not to make a proper announcement of the event.

Furthermore, it was plainly evident that unfairness was being practiced, with favoured individual media being invited and 'less obedient media' being discriminated against.

Such behaviour on the part of a government department is totally unacceptable. It smacks of dire things to come. Early beginnings of government control of the media starts usually off this way.

There was more. According to the rules set by the information officers, no tape recording, photographing or filming was allowed although the briefing was attributable.

Was this rule set for the convenience for the government official to shy away from responsibility afterwards? Or was it that the official dared not to face the media as well as the public for whom the media reported? It would be totally unacceptable if it was the former situation. If it was the latter case, the Deputy Director Chan should go back home and study more and only resume duty when he has the confidence or capability to face the media and the public.

It should also be asked whether no one in the management of the FSD dared to face the media as well and the public? Why have they resort to such secretive ways to explain such a fatal mistake, no matter it is man-made or systemic mistake?

If the media had not revealed the control room error and forced the FSD to admit to a grave error, would the FSD have immediately improved its reporting system for grading a fire alarm? There were previous media reports about the inadequacies of the new digital system about which frontline firemen had long complained with nothing done. One senior officer had to give up his life to secure attention to this serious inadequacy.

As for the ridiculous briefing arrangements, it may gain another number one for Hong Kong government. It boggles the imagination that an attributable briefing cannot be recorded in any form. How can the Hong Kong government claim to be an open government with such irresponsible arrangements in place? Deplorably, such briefings take place on a frequent basis. If a reporter complains about it, he may be penalized later; most probably being not invited to attend further briefings. Gradually, such unreasonable arrangements spread and we are way down the slippery slope towards a controlled media.

The Journalist calls upon every colleague to keep us informed about such unacceptable arrangements whenever it takes place. We need to let the whole world know how 'open' the Hong Kong government is.