HKJA Urges Enactment of Access to Information Act/ How Press Freedom Can Be Protected

Mak Yin-ting - Chairperson, HKJA

[Oct 2012 - The Journalist] In less than two months’ time after Leung Chun-ying took up the office of Chief Executive, the press arrangement of the new government has been alleged as playing tricks on media. It uproars the media and proof the industry-wide survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) in last April, namely, 60 percent of the respondents thought that press freedom under Leung’s administration would be shrink and stringent manipulation against media was one of the reason cited.

To express media’s concern, three executive committee members of the HKJA met with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Chief Secretary, on August 22nd. We believe that the best way forward is the enactment of access to information so as to cultivate an open and accountable government. In turn, public’s right to know will be safeguarded.

During the meeting, we pointed out flaws of the Code on Access to Information, which has been implemented for 27 years. Even the Ombudsman stated clearly in 2009 that “freedom of information legislation (FOI) is an important element of ‘open government’. Moreover, the General Comment on the implementation of the Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights announced by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations stipulated that “States parties should also enact the necessary procedures, whereby one may gain access to information, such as by means of freedom of information legislation.” The inaction by the government may be judged as non-conformant with the international commitment. Until recently, there have been almost seventy countries enact such legislation and it is unreasonable for Hong Kong, which claims as an open government, not on such list.

According to the experience gained by other countries and cited by the Freedom of Information Around the World 2006, FOI is essential for public participation which is the cornerstone of democracy. Democracy is based on the consent of the citizens and the consent relies on the government informing the public about their activities and respects their right to participate. Genuine public participation will be secured by FOI and thus enhance the public awareness of the reasons behind decisions which can improve support and reduce misunderstandings and dissatisfaction.

To the government, FOI will consolidate good governance. Decisions that are known to be eventually made public are more likely to be based on objective and justifiable reasons.

In relations to the public, FOI laws can improve the enjoyment of many other economic and political rights. In the United States of America, Freedom of Information Act was used to reveal instances of government related torture and illegal surveillance. In India, the concern laws were used to improve rations distribution by revealing that food vendors had not provided the government-subsidized food to impoverished citizens. Presumably Hong Kong has the laws in place, the society may not split up by the controversy on moral and national education subject as such if the public’s awareness of the information satisfied and genuine dialogue started earlier.

Carrie Lam responded that the government was open on the legislation and would seriously studied the issue, including the priority of the subject matter in the mind of CY Leung who signed the press freedom charter. In the charter, the signatory promised to promote the FOI law actively.      

Manipulation Against Media Tightened

The HKJA sincerely hope that Mr. Leung kept his promise and enact laws to build up an open government. This will be a great step forward in protecting people’s right to know and a demonstration to the community how he treasures the core value of freedom.

This is particular important because the Leung administration has been impressed the society by its manipulation against media by playing tricks.

According to the figures collected by the HKJA, there were 24 occasions that “propaganda releases and videos” sent after official events without non-governmental press’ presence. Among which, the new CE got seven and the CS even got more, nine propaganda materials were sent. Carrier Lam explained that not all activities of officials are official activities. Some of the items we raised were just visits but not district visits so no press arrangement was made. She also defensed CE on not calling for media arrangement because he did not wanted to turned exchange of views with academics into an open forum.

HKJA begs not. We regard all public duties performed by government officials as official activities whenever public funding is involved. How can it be disguised as “activity of official” and need not scrutinised by the public! The dissemination of propaganda material is just a spinning tactic to inform the public the goods done by government omni-dimensionally.

More disturbing is the increasing use of pool press to record the official activities without chance to ask question. During the aforesaid period, there were 22 such occasions. Sham Yee-lan, one of the representatives of HKJA, pointed out in the meeting that pool arrangement will only be acceptable in circumstances of limited environment. However, examples shown that pool press were not necessary. For instances, the CE observed the implementation of a $2 concessionary elderly fare scheme in an open air bus stop, the tour of CE of footbridges. It is a regression on open governance. She further queried whether the government had changed its policy of press arrangement.

Carrie Lam stressed that no policy change in press arrangement. Only that the government wishes to enhance the communication with the media and be open as much as possible.

She gave reference to her track record during her term of office as Secretary for Development. She had done no off-the-record briefing then and wished to bring this experience into the current post as Chief Secretary. She further stated that she had done over 90 standups in the first six to seven weeks after she took up the new post. It triples the number of standups made in the same time period of the past administration.

In HKJA’s view, content is king, not the number. We hope that the government does not manipulate the media by our technical restraint or put our relationship sour otherwise. We expressed our view in the meeting that one Q & A session should be set up whenever pool press was called so as not to ‘nationalise’ free press photographers or cameramen.

We hope the meeting signified the beginning of our genuine communication. Talk without listening will hamper press freedom as well as the status of Hong Kong as the regional information hub.  

Meaningless Improvement in new CGO  

In relation to the press facility of the new Central Government Offices compound, Ken Lui, one of the excom members, showcased the inconvenient and unsatisfactory corridor linked between the west and east wings of the CGO. The Administration Wing supplemented after the meeting due to time constraint that they are going to change the dozen doors the media have to go through via the corridor into automatic doors. They believe that it may help journalists free their hands to push doors from carrying equipment.

HKJA thought it was a waste of public money. The most efficient and direct way is to open the staff corridor to media. It is clear that the root of the problem lies in the design of the CGO in light of isolating and restricting the media in a very limited space. Otherwise, no extra sources and efforts are needed to put the course in track.