Words from the Editor: From Hong Kong to Manila

Mak Yin-ting

Spot news is not just about incidents or accidents involving casualties. Most of the time, it relates to our daily lives and the delay in publicizing it would put the public interest at risk.

The elimination of spot news does not merely affect the livelihood of spot news reporters, it is the deprivation of the public's right to know.

The monopolization of spot news information, created by the absolute power to disseminate information, only ensures the police and other enforcement agencies to be excluded from being monitored by the media. Without any yardstick by which the dissemination of information can be gauged, or by a measure known only to the police, our law enforcement agency can easily cover any substandard performance and/or malpractices from public view.

This is not a wild claim. It is a finding based on our own study of facts and figures available to the public. This analysis was carried out by the Hong Kong Journalists Association on the dissemination mechanism of spot news information. This study compared the findings of information disseminated by the police in the first two months after the digital communications system was put in place in December 2004 and the information released by the same police force over the same period of time six years later. The results clearly show that the police never kept its word; never took its own promise seriously. The daily notices the police sent to media dropped from 11.8 cases in 2004/2005 to a mere 2.7 in the same period in 2009-2010 or an 80 percent drop rate. It tells vividly what deterioration means and serves as a typical example of how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The Journalist firmly believes that all information should be in the public domain. The best way to protect the public interest is to allow the free and direct access to the information received by the police emergency call centre after personal data of callers is deleted.

The paucity of information disseminated by the police is alarming for society. In response, the police have increased by a tiny fraction the amount of information released in recent weeks. This has not solved the problem at all. Without any entrenched safeguards in the system who or how can anyone guarantee that there will be no relapse once social pressure is relaxed?

The police is not the only agency that has not honoured its promise. The same lapse is to be found in the language used in government releases. The HKJA found that the number of “Chinese-only” press releases have surged. Even government officials‘ answers given at meetings of the Legislative Council proliferate with “Chinese-only” documents or press releases. It is problematic because Legco papers go into official archives which are not just a part of the history but also the basis for subsequent amendments or improvements. More important, the English version allows the international community, which is predominantly English-speaking, to understand Hong Kong better. The absence or inadequacy of English versions of official documents jeopardises the status of Hong Kong as an international city in the region. After reading the analysis by Shirley Yam, you will know how serious the problem is.

We shall not point fingers at others. The media’s news coverage of the Manila hostage saga has much room for improvement. Issues like the live broadcast from the scene, live interview with the hostage taker and the occupancy of the telephone lines, are just a few of the issues involved. However, pointers can easily be taken from guidelines issued by the Poynter Institute, Society of Professional Journalists and other media professional groups. What The Journalist would like to look at is at the micro perspective level, namely, how to interview those victims and their relatives.

Of course, the interviews only provide a base for further discussion by colleagues because the situation varies in accordance with the questions raised. The main thing is not to rub salt over the wound. With a caring approach in mind, the protection of public’s right to know can be reconciled with the principle of not intruding into grievances and distress of the victims.