A Government that waits till the very last minute of the day to respond

The Journalist

[Oct 2012 - The Journalist] There has been no lack of affirmation from Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying of his commitment to press freedom. Before and after taking office he stressed his firm belief in this basic tenet of democracy. He even signed an HKJA charter on protecting press freedom at as candidates' forum.

Media practitioners have not been won over. A mid-year survey by HKJA showed that 60 percent of reporters surveyed believe the situation will worsen under Leung. In the two months since taking office neither Leung nor his administration have done anything to ease concerns. If anything he and his top officials have only convinced media personnel that their fears are not groundless.

Both HKJA and the industry strongly condemned his predecessor Donald Tsang for doing away with media interviews of officials and, instead, handed out footage prepared by the Information Services Department. Leung's administration has only improved on this slightly with the introduction of “pool arrangements”.

This appears on the surface to be an improvement. A tiny pool of reporters and photographers, representing the whole media industry, gets to interview an official or take photographs of some official activity. But the intention is simply to restrict the media with the same end result – restricting the citizen's right to know.
According to the survey of The Journalist and information provided by the ISD, from July 1 to September 8, the government organized 37 pooled interviews; 29 activities “covered” by official footage with no press interviews.
But a “cramped environment” was apparently not the sole reason for those 37 pooled interviews because those occasions included the Chief Executive going out to look at some of the damage caused by Typhoon Vicente on July 24, visiting the Shau Kei Wan bus terminus for a first-hand view of the implementation of the Public Transport Fare Concession Scheme for the Elderly at Shau Kei Wan's bus terminus on August 5, and the Secretary for Education, Ng Hak-kim's visit to the border control point to see the situation of cross-boundary students on September 3. These locations are far from cramped. There was absolutely no good reason to resort to any pooled arrangement other than to restrict the media from turning up and asking questions.

That Leung's administration is far from the transparency and openness he had promised is best seen from the Secretary for Education Ng Hak-kim's stealth visit to Yuan Guiren, the Central Government's Minister for Education in Beijing. Ironically, the news was first announced by the Central Government, which is much less transparent than Hong Kong government. The website of Minister of Education published the news while the Information Services Department remained silence.

In late August, a newspaper received from a reader a photo taken on a plane, thus exposing the Commissioner of Police, Tsang Wai-hung's visit to Beijing. Tsang later said that it was normal practice to make official visits to Beijing without any prior announcement. The press would only be told if there was any achievement from such meetings. The chairperson of HKJA, Mak Yin-ting said such an explanation was ridiculous and unacceptable. She said she had been a reporter for more than 20 years and press had always been informed in advance of any official visit to Beijing.

The press release arrangement was also fiercely criticised by the media. The most absurd example in this respect was the housing scandal related to Secretary for Development, Paul Chan, who was suspected of renting out subdivided apartments. Chan's two statements were released late at night. The first statement was released at 8:57 pm on August 1, the day after the story broke. Another statement was issued the next day, a Sunday, at 11.59 pm – shocking the whole media industry.

Such practices are unacceptable. These incidents do not involve “breaking” or “spot” news. In all these instances the media had been making enquiries and soliciting reactions from early morning. The government had all day to react or comment. No, the government had to literally wait till the very last minute of the day to say something. Is any wonder that both the people and the media have serious doubts about the government's commitment to press freedom? These instances clearly show the government wants to play down all the news that it deems to be negative.

Chan's statement was not an isolated instance. Another press release issued late in the night concerned the declarations of interests by the Chief Executive, ExCo Members and Politically Appointed Officials. The government announced in a press release on Aug 10 (a Friday) at 8:31 pm through Information Services Department that the declarations were available for public inspection. Reporters had hardly any time to find anything from the declaration, and had to wait till Monday, after the weekend holidays, to look into these declarations. By then the news had become old news.

Another tactic of Leung's administration is to bombard the media with a number of important matters all at once. For instance, on Aug 31, it announced relaxation of visa restrictions on mainland visitors, land sales schedule in Oct and Dec this year and the enhancement measures for the Work Incentive Transport Subsidy Scheme. Why the rush?