Doubts Remain Over Transparency of Hong Kong Government

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist] Since The Journalist looked into the problem of ‘off the record’ briefings, the number of such of briefings have decreased. According to information provided by reporters, there were seven briefings between early September and early December last year, little change compared with the period from mid-June to early September the same year.

Of seven briefings, three were arranged after an on-record Q & A session. Apart from weather change, the government held nearly 20 press conferences between early September and early December last year.

This does not mean the situation is satisfactory. Some policies of public concern, such as amending the law to combat drunk driving, officials still announced it through “off the record” briefing. Such a method of avoiding facing the public through a press conference should be corrected.

Moreover, the decline in the number of “off the record” briefings does not mean the government has become more transparent. In fact the government is more often in employing another spin strategy to weaken the impact of negative news.

Background briefings held by government between early Sep to early Dec
Subject of biefing
Government Bureau/Department
Bid for Asian Games
Home Affairs Bureau
Second stage public consultation on healthcare reform
Food and Health Bureau
Review of Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance
Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau
Cross Harbour Tunnel toll fee
Transport and Housing Bureau
Revitalizing the Tiger Balm Garden Site
Development Bureau
New anti-property speculation measures
Transport and Housing Bureau
Review the Ordinance against Drugged Driving
Transport and Housing Bureau
Sources: Newspaper report and numerous reporters

Press Conference Held by the GIS During Mid-September to Early December, 2010
Topic of Press Conference
The Bureau/official
Mid-Autumn Festival Carnival
Leisure and Cultural Services Department
Selecting working partner for revitalized historical building
The Secretary for Development, Carrie Lam
Press conference on CGO West Wing Redevelopment Scheme
The Acting Permanent Secretary for Development, Gracie Foo
Bid for Asian Games
The Secretary for Home Affairs, Tsang Tak Sing
Cross-border telephone deception
Second stage public consultation on healthcare reform
The Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow
Policy Address
The Chief Executive Donald Tsang
Review of Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance
The Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Stephen Lam
Operation against youth crime
Methods for selecting CE and forming LegCo in 2012
The Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Stephen Lam
Public transport arrangements for the "Riverside Scene at Qingming Festival" Exhibition
The Transport Department
Sea-smuggled electronic products
The Customs and Excise Department
Economic Situation in Third Quarter and Latest GDP and Price Forecasts
The Government Economist, Helen Chan
Revitalizing the former police married quarters on Hollywood Road
The Secretary for Development, Carrie Lam
New anti-property speculation measures
The Financial Secretary, John Tsang
celebration events for 100th anniversary of aviation development
The Director-General of Civil Aviation, Norman Lo
Anti-piracy enforcement action
The Customs and Excise Department
AIDS situation in the third quarter
The Consultant of the Department of Health's Centre for Health Protection, Dr Wong Ka-hing,
Cracked a sea smuggling case
The Customs and Excise Department, Police
Vessel collision east of Tung Lung Chau
The Marine Department, Police and Fire Services Department
Source: Government Information Service Department

Here are some of the methods employed:

1. Announcing new policies of public concern at weekends

Saturday and Sunday are holiday when more soft news is published and less reporters are at work. The financial newspapers do not even appear on the street on Sundays. People tend to pay less attention to serious news when in a holiday mood. The weekend has become a golden time slot for government to announce important news on Saturdays.

An example is the announcement that the Director of Broadcasting, Franklin Wong Wah-kay, who did not want his contract renewed upon expiry. The announcement was made on 20th November (Saturday) through a press release by the Information Services Department (GIS), although Wong did a stand-up by himself. Another example is the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau's press conference on 30th October to announce the proposed election method of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council election in 2012.

It may help newspapers to fill up the pages more easily as there are fewer news events on Saturdays. The problem is how many people left Hong Kong for a short holiday or wrapped up in holiday mood even if they remained in Hong Kong and thus pay less attention to the news? Will diminished public attention turn into less discussion in the public sphere?

2. Only Press Release … Issued at Night

For simple matters like traffic condition, congestions or accidents, it is understandable to inform the public through a press release. But it is wholly inappropriate to simply issue a press release on matters of public concern because lots of questions have to be answered by officials. However, there were more of such instances when only press releases were issued. At night, too. The public may question whether the government intended to hide from the media’s questions and put obstacles in the way of media getting a thorough report. No matter what the reason is for such behaviour, the people’s right to know is at stake.

For example, a government site, about 2,100 square metres was going to be granted to the Commissioner’s Office of China’s Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong to meet additional accommodation needs. According to the database of GIS, the press release was sent out at 6:25pm on 24th November (Wednesday). Moreover, the sensitive news had to compete for air space or page space with numerous news emerging from the regular Legislative Council meeting.

To make the situation worse, the Education Bureau announced the list of the Direct Subsidy Scheme Schools at 8:15pm through a press release the same night. It was a great challenge for reporters to follow it thoroughly before the deadline. Regrettably, some even could not cite a correct total number of the DSS schools in Hong Kong.

The belated dissemination of a press release triggered a formal complaint against the Department of Health (DoH). From 15th October to 26th October last year, DoH issued three press releases about recalling pharmaceutical products at around 11 o’clock at night. It is well known that this is the deadline for many print media. For those media which could pick up the news, it was difficult to have thorough reports that night. And individual newspapers whose deadline had passed missed the news completely and the beat reporters were blamed the following day.

While responding to the complaint, Director of Health, Dr. P. Y. Lam emphasized that the authority had responsibility to inform people immediately and they had no intention to interfere with media coverage. He apologized for causing inconvenience to reporters. He further agreed to consider HJKA’s suggestion that whenever information concerning public interest is expected to be released at night, the DoH will send SMS in advance to the beat reporters concerned in advance in order to give them time to prepare for the story.

As a matter of fact, it is in the interests of a responsible and transparent government to release information as early as possible so that the maximum number of citizens can take note of the information. The Journalist hopes very much that other authorities can follow this example of DoH in disseminating information.