Spot news is closely related to the lives of Hong Kong people and many of these news items are of public interest. However, a study by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) finds that the release mechanism for information relating to such news by the police fails to meet even their own commitment, whether in respect of numbers or time-lag between the reporting of crimes and the release of such information.
The study has further found that on occasions no information was disseminated at all. Moreover, certain types of crimes were filtered out by the police and remained totally unknown to the general public. This jeopardizes Hong Kong people’s right to know.
The HKJA, therefore, urges the police to restore the information release system to allow the media full and free access to crime reporting information after personal data of a caller to the police emergency call centre is deleted. No other information should be filtered out by the police.
The police launched its Third Generation Command and Control Communications System on 9December 2004, replacing the analog radio system with a digital one. The media could no longer tune into police communications in respect of crime reporting or calls for assistance from the police. Reporters now can only look to information released by the police, whose criteria for selection of information to be released are cloaked in secrecy. This fundamental change in respect of handling information by the police has been highly criticized by news media.
This prompted a study by the HKJA of the implementation of the spot news information release system by the police. According to figures collected by the HKJA, between 1 July 2009 and 31 December 2009, only 2.7 items of media interest were disseminated by police via the Government Information Services each day, representing merely 1.27% of the total crimes reported to the police in the same period. Special attention should be drawn to the fact that no items were sent out on nine days.
This figure was not only far below the number of cases pledged to be released by the police before the adoption of the new communications system, but also far less than the spot news published by newspapers. Obviously, much spot news information were withheld by the police for reasons not known to the public or the media.
More unacceptable is the failure of the police to release information involving prominent public figures. Our study found that incidents involving celebrities, police officers and government officials were withheld by police. Most of such incidents were uncovered because reporters were alerted by readers or other sources.
The simplistic and scarce information released by the police via official mechanism pose difficulties for media which have to decide whether an incident is newsworthy and requiring follow up action. This raises questions about whether the authorities are trying to play down or blur the gravity of some happenings.
With the police in full control of the information flow, certain kinds of spot news have disappeared from the radar of the media: illegal enforcement by mainland officials in Hong Kong waters and street crimes, to name a few. However, it is legitimate to ask: Does withholding information by the police, ensuring no news reports appear in the media mean that no crimes are taking place in Hong Kong?
From our study and the prevailing trend, it is clear that the information release mechanism of the police has become a device for manipulation of press freedom. If the Hong Kong media is to depend entirely on the information released by the police, all spot news, which occupies approximately one third to half of the local news in the papers, will probably disappear. On certain days no crime news can be found in any newspaper; our society, it would appear, is safe and peaceful. Unfortunately, this is no more than a mirage, created entirely by controlling media freedom.
The HKJA believes that spot news information must be in the public domain and not made the private property of the government. Journalists must have the right to access this information and follow-up the incidents in accordance with their professional judgment without prior selection and/or deletion by the police
The HKJA urges the police to revamp the information dissemination mechanism at issue by allowing journalists to freely access spot news information after the personal data of the callers have been deleted.
The HKJA also notes with concern that the Fire Services Department is considering adopting a system similar to the Third Generation Command and Control Communications System of the police. We urge the FSD to facilitate the work of reporters in designing the mechanism so as to avoid the repetition of flaws committed by the police. Otherwise, it would only confirm that the government is merely using new technology to suppress both freedom of access to information and freedom of the press.
Hong Kong Journalists Association
12th September 2010