Critical report puts police in spotlight

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 May, 2012, 12:00am


For a police force that enjoys a good reputation and high public regard, the criticisms levelled by a government watchdog of the way it dealt with protesters and journalists during a state leader's visit last summer are damaging. It shows the police have much room for improvement in handling major political events. Since the coming 15th anniversary of Hong Kong's reunification is likely to draw large-scale protests, it is imperative we learn from experience and avoid similar clashes. The damning report by the Independent Police Complaints Council has confirmed that some frontline officers unduly restricted journalists covering the visit of Vice-Premier Li Keqiang . This included excessive searching of reporters' personal belongings and stopping a TV cameraman filming a protester being carried away by officers. But the watchdog found no evidence at this stage that police intentionally abused their powers in order to suppress media freedom.

The findings reflected badly on police commissioner Andy Tsang Wai-hung. Defending his team in a Legco meeting last year, Tsang said the officers in the TV camera incident were merely reacting out of instinct when they suddenly saw a dark shadow. But his account was later proved wrong by an internal police investigation. Responding to the report, Tsang said he would not retract his statement or apologise, but would reflect on the department's inadequacies. Not surprisingly, his remarks have fuelled calls for him to step down.

Confronted by protesters under the watchful eyes of reporters in a tight security environment, nervous individual officers on the front line may have over-reacted. According to the report, some officers were subsequently given warnings and others face disciplinary action or even dismissal.

The underlying problem is the excessive security arrangements for the visit, which were decided at the top level. It would be wrong if a few frontline officers are singled out for blame while those in charge of security escape responsibility. It is encouraging that the watchdog is demanding the force disclose documents related to the overall operation and has not ruled out pursuing responsibility among senior ranks later. It is in the force's interest to co-operate.

The idea of having a council to review complaints goes beyond seeking justice and redress for the aggrieved. It helps identify weakness and inadequacies that need addressing. While the police have the duty to provide appropriate security for visiting leaders and dignitaries, they are also expected to facilitate freedom of demonstration and respect press freedom at the same time. The official events and demonstrations during the 15th handover anniversary are likely to be big tests of how well the police, protesters and the media can work together. Lessons should be learned.