Media unite to spotlight the wrongs of the rich and famous – CE not excluded

Alvin Wong - Reporter, Apple Daily

[中文][Aug 2011 - The JournalistIn his report in April, the Ombudsman strongly criticised both the Lands and Buildings departments for failing to take legal action against unauthorized structures of New Territories small houses. In fact, the Ombudsman had raised this issue repeatedly every few years but had never drawn public attention.

Recently, however, the issue made a heavy impact, setting off a chain effect that swept up a number of top officials, politicians, celebrities and even Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Public discussion initially focused on the privileges enjoyed by the villagers but went on to include urban dwellers.

The Chief Executive’s entire balcony walled in with glass panels is unlawful.
The response from the rural committee was formidable. At first it tried to negotiate with the government to rationalize this problem of illegal structures. But it turned out that they just wanted to justify the situation and to make it lawful.

Even after the compromise by Secretary for Development Carrie Lam, giving some leeway to small houses built after 1972, some villagers still tried to pressure the government into legalizing those unlawful structures by putting up a variety of reasons to justify their positions.

But the controversy created a surprising consensus among the media. Both print and electronic media joined hands to show the full extent of this problem of illegal structures. As layers of illegality were peeled off senior officials and celebrities also came under the spotlight. Under enormous pressure from the media the government was forced to tackle a problem it had left untouched for many years.

Apple Daily led the way with an investigative story on the illegal structures put up by lawmaker Chan Kam-lam. It started with a complaint against an unidentified legislator for abuse of power by putting up his own structures on government land. The paper subsequently identified the lawmaker as Chan. Further investigations found Chan had also put up illegal structures on his own property.

Michael Suen simply ignored the fact that his residence had an illegal structure.
Instead of waiting for the government to provide the necessary information the newspaper took the initiative to invite engineers and building experts to assess and verify that some structures in Chan’s house were illegal.
The investigation into Chan’s property did not end the issue because other outlets followed up with their own investigations on the properties of other rich and famous. Notables brought into the limelight were Wong Kwok-hing, Mainland and Constitutional Affairs Secretary Stephen Lam, Financial Secretary Henry Tang and, eventually, the chief executive himself.

Uncertainties and confusion

The saga came to a climax when core members of the SAR administration Kitty Poon and Michael Suen were shown to have blatantly breached the buildings regulations. It was simply outrageous that Suen who was the housing and planning chief at the time had completely ignored the order issued by his own department against the unlawful structures in his apartment.

That same day the chief executive's property on MacDonnell Road was found to have its balcony illegally enclosed. His core officials were also found to have similar breaches of the law on their properties.
Others breaching the law included the father of Chief Secretary Henry Tang and Executive Committee member Dr Leong Che-hung.

The chief executive initially tried to put up a defence. After an urgent day-long meeting, the Buildings Department confirmed that the structure in Tsang’s flat was unlawful and needed to be removed. It is, perhaps, likely that Tsang, like many owners of old apartments are unfamiliar with building regulations.
In most instances unlawful structures came to light upon reports by people. But this problem is so extensive and so prevalent that people started to lose sight of it until the issue was widely reported by the media in recent months.

The media, nevertheless, went to considerable lengths to identify owners and verify ownership of the properties and other details after being tipped off by readers. Most tip-offs provided only brief details in a sentence or two, like “Stephen Lam’s flat has unlawful structures.” It was the effort of the media to identify the properties and to dig out floor plans of other units as well as pictures of the building’s previous conditions to make the necessary comparisons.

The Buildings Ordinance (1984) allowed exceptions to flats owners to enclose their balconies under certain conditions. But those exceptions were abolished in 1992, creating uncertainties and confusion in the minds of many people. In most cases, media sought confirmation of apartment-owners about the allegations of unlawful structures.

Some, but not all flat owners, were frank about their breaches of the building regulations. Albert Cheng initially baffled the media about the structures in his luxury property on the Peak after the former radio host denied the structure was unlawful and even claimed that the reporter was mistaken. The problem eventually was confirmed after the reporter sought confirmation from the Buildings Department which simply said the structure had never been legally approved.

Translated by Patsy Moy