Police "Gatekeeping" Still Hampering Free Flow of Information

Patty Tam Sau-han - Press Freedom Subcommittee member, HKJA

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist]  There has been some improvement in the first month of police’s trial run in using only the English language to disseminate spot news, in spite of the fact that it is far from satisfactory. However, it would be difficult to stop the police from returning to their old ways after the public has lowered its guard. As strongly recommended by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the police should revamp their information dissemination mechanism by allowing journalists free access to spot news information after the caller’s personal data have been deleted. This will also alleviate skepticisms about “selective’’ dissemination of news by the police.

Based on HKJA’s study released in September last year, police had only disseminated 2.7 spot news massages in the second half of last year, accounting for a mere 1.27 percent of the daily crime reports. Both the paucity and the severe delay in news dissemination were worrying, leading to HKJA and representatives from different media corporations to organise a meeting with the Police Public Relations Branch (PPRB) on October 29 to work out improvements. At the meeting the Police initiated the use of English only to disseminate spot news from November 1 in the hope of saving time in translation.

Information Dissemination Improved Slightly

HKJA conducted a survey in October and November on the police messages disseminated under the heading “Attention News Editor” through the Information Services Department and found that there was improvement. In terms of quantity, the number of messages disseminated jumped from 9.55 in October to 17.97 in November (See table 1). However, the figure was still far below the pledge of 60 – 100 made by police at the launch of the new digital communication system in 2004.

In terms of the speed, it improved from 38 minutes and 33 seconds in October to 32 minutes and 5 seconds in November. But there is still a gap as the police had pledged to keep within 20 minutes. In nearly 60 percent of the spot news, the police spent more than 20 minutes to disseminate them to the press (See table 2). In the three worst cases, it took four to five and a half hours to reach journalists. (See table 3 in the following article.)

It is both disappointing and puzzling that police continue to delay the dissemination of news that involve public safety. Such news sometimes do not involve criminal elements.

One classic example was the discovery of an extremely large lizard at Wo Che in Fanling on the November 28 last year. The same village had previously recorded reports of crocodiles and other dangerous wildlife. However, the police took one and a half hour to disseminate such news, and thus delayed the work of journalists to report the incident and to draw public attention to potential risks to their safety.

Misleading Information Disseminated

This lizard incident also revealed another problem, namely, police sending out misleading information. In its message to editors, police only described it as “Insect found”. It is ridiculous to describe a 4-foot-long lizard as some sort of a harmless insect. On that occasion, a TV channel took quite some time to figure out it was in fact a gigantic lizard before it sent a team to the scene. However, the “insect” had already disappeared by the time the TV crew arrived. It was “disastrous” for the TV news channel without any footage to support its news report. This incident shows a dire need to consider whether the police, intentionally or otherwise, is obstructing freedom of press.

The over-simplified messages always leave journalists confused and, making it difficult for them to decide on the newsworthiness of any incident. But the police maintain that it is not a priority for them to sort out the gap between speed and comprehensiveness of news dissemination.

In fact, the problems can be easily resolved once police no longer act as “gatekeepers” in the release of news and to follow the various recommendations made by HKJA. Before police undertakes further steps to make improvements, frontline journalists should report to HKJA whenever they encounter any problems which hamper their reporting duties.

Table 1: Volume of Spot News Released by GIS:

  October 2010* November 2010*
Total number 296 539
Daily average 9.55 17.97
Range of daily volume 4 to 7cases 11 to 8 cases
Average speed 38”33 32”05
* Only English pieces counted.

Table 2: Time-lag between the reporting of crimes and the release of information

                  October 2010 *          November 2010*
Time lag Number of cases Percentage Number of cases Percentage
>5 hours(5:39) 0  - 1 0.2%
>4 hours (4:02-07) 0  - 2 0.4%
>3 hours (3:08-37) 2 0.7% 0 - 
2’ to 2’59” 6 2.0% 4 0.7%
1’ to 1’59” 42 14.2% 53 9.8%
45” to 59” 40 13.5% 57 10.6%
30” to 44” 63 21.3% 105 19.5%
21” to 29” 48 16.2% 93 17.3%
11” to 20” 76 25.7% 138 25.6%
3” to 10” 19 6.4% 86 16.0%

Translated by Patsy Moy