Tightening media rules on exposés would hurt HK’s global image

July 30, 2021 06:00
Photo: RTHK

About two years before the 1997 reunification the then Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang had an off-the-record briefing with selected media. I was the chief editor of a now defunct English language newspaper during those politically-charged times.

She did not invite our newspaper, which she considered too critical of the government. Someone at the briefing told me what Chan said. I decided to run the story naming her because our reporter was not at the briefing and therefore not bound by off-the-record rules.

When I was a correspondent in Washington DC for this newspaper and other Hong Kong media leading up to reunification, a very senior expatriate civil servant gave a talk at the Heritage Foundation think tank. Reporters were not allowed.

A friend at Heritage told me what this Hong Kong official said. Later that day the official, who passed away years ago, called me to say hello because we were friends. I told him I knew what he said at the talk and would write a story. He argued it was off-the-record and not reportable.

I said I wasn’t there and had a right to report what reliable sources told me. He understood journalism rules but said he could be in trouble if I reported what he said. He offered me another story, which I accepted after checking with my editors.

Officials in those days had a good relationship with reporters they trusted. We would sacrifice juicy stories if we believed it was for Hong Kong’s overall good and if the stories threatened national security. I sacrificed stories, including a sensitive tape of a meeting by post-handover senior officials, because I was born here and would never want to hurt it.

The vast majority of Hong Kong reporters are not bad people. They dedicate their lives to journalism by risking even petrol bombs thrown by protestors and police teargas because they believe in the public’s right to know.

Does Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor understand what journalism means? She seems confused about the rules of journalism in a free society. I use the word “free” because she insists Hong Kong is still a free society.

Last Friday, she said on RTHK’s English language radio show Backchat it was wrong for the media to have reported her August 2019 comments at a private meeting for business leaders. When the two hosts said it was in the interests of transparency, she retorted it showed the lack of integrity and morality by some in the media.

The audio tape of her remarks was leaked to the internationally-recognized Reuters news agency. Media organizations around the world use its service. Local and overseas media picked up the story from Reuters. Is she saying Reuters has no integrity?

She said in her 2019 remarks she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by trying to ram through her now-dead extradition bill. She blamed herself for the havoc. When one of the hosts said the Reuters report didn’t break any laws, she gave a cold laugh and said perhaps it was time to bring in new laws.

What does she have in mind? Laws that would ban the media from exposing wrongdoings by senior government officials? There have been plenty in the past, including two recent cases.

Did the media lack integrity in reporting them to fulfil the public‘s right to know? My hope is Lam didn’t really mean what she said about new laws to tighten media reporting. The media in free societies should not be faulted for factually ensuring transparency.

Readers may remember the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. The Washington Post revealed Republican President Richard Nixon’s administration had tried to cover up its break-in of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters. The scandal forced Nixon to resign.

In 1971 the New York Times carried a front page story about the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the US government had secretly extended the war in Vietnam but hid it from the American public.

Both exposés were given to the newspapers by sources. The editors of both papers decided the public had a right to know. Revealing the break-in of the Democratic Party’s headquarters by Republican spies and covering up the truth of the Vietnam War were issues with no national security implications.

The media did not threaten national security by publicizing Lam’s admission that her extradition bill had caused unforgivable havoc. Admitting the bill was a bad idea had no security implications. She changed her tune last week, telling Backchat the bill was not a mistake.

She said the mistake was handling it badly. Either way, the media’s use of a leaked tape doesn’t warrant new laws to ban such use.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.