Media matters

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 December, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 December, 1999, 12:00am

Until the latest incident, Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's frequent tussles with the establishment have been confined to commercial disputes. The raid on Apple Daily's offices by the Independent Commission Against Corruption has wider implications.

First, it involves allegations of bribery, a serious offence, and which the ICAC has a duty to investigate fully. But it also touches on issues involving the media that are very sensitive. So it is important that the ICAC acts with sensitivity and restraint, proceeding in a way that does not raise doubts in the public mind about threats to press freedom.

Journalists have a professional duty to protect the identity of legitimate informants. No one would volunteer sensitive information to a newspaper without feeling confident that their name would remain a closely-guarded secret. That relationship is a private arrangement between reporter and contact. In Hong Kong, it has never been sacrosanct as far as the law is concerned.

Examples around the world of reporters being ordered by courts to divulge the sources of their stories are not uncommon. When journalists refuse, they take the consequences and sometimes are jailed.

But the principle being debated in the courts here has other implications. It concerns the seizure of computer files, notebooks and contact numbers, and means the ICAC may have gained access to details of people who have provided Apple Daily staff with confidential information unrelated to the current investigation that could cause them trouble if their identity was known.

Many stories of malpractice would never surface without informants who feel they are doing a public service by reporting it to the press, and it would be unfortunate if this incident deterred people from coming forward. The temporary injunction granted to Apple Daily means that reporters' sources will remain protected until a full hearing finally decides the matter. But if, ultimately, the material is released to the ICAC, it should bear in mind the sensitivity of the issue, and act with the utmost discretion.

Investigations of bribery are serious matters, and no one is above the law. But the public interest will not be well served if the case leads to a fall-off in the flow of information that reporters rely on in their role as public watchdog, and a monitor of the workings of government and those in high places.