No place for a spat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 12:00am

At its root, concerns about trial by the media underlies the police's attack on the Independent Commission Against Corruption for tarnishing the reputation of the force by publicising the arrests of officers suspected of corruption.

What triggered the police's unprecedented move was an ICAC release last Saturday disclosing the arrest of a senior superintendent for allegedly accepting advantages to provide tip-offs on anti-vice operations. Following long-standing practice, the ICAC release did not name the officer, but the media managed to identify him, and two others arrested, and devoted considerable space to cover it as a major scandal.

Before the latest arrest, police had already been fuming over other 'high-profile' ICAC arrests of their officers over the past year. They were upset that despite the lapse of time, no charges had been laid against the officers. In pressing the ICAC to update the public on how the investigations have fared, the police suggest that the graftbusters might not have collected sufficient evidence before arresting the officers.

Indeed, there were numerous instances where people arrested by the ICAC were subsequently released without being charged. Those who were paraded in front of press cameras and had their names splashed across newspapers when they were arrested understandably feel aggrieved, because their discharge does not usually attract any publicity.

But it would be unfair to find only the ICAC 'guilty' of publicising arrests. When it suits their purpose, other law enforcement agencies, including the police, have done the same, although the ICAC seems to have done it more often. As a means of combating crime, all law enforcement agencies find publicising arrests useful because the timely dissemination of such information can be an effective deterrent.

Such publicity, however, exacts a heavy price on so-called innocent suspects who are subsequently cleared of any wrongdoings. As most people believe there is no smoke without fire, little can be done to repair their damaged reputations.

In some jurisdictions, the problem is addressed by banning the publication of suspects' identities until they have been charged. But that is not the law in most countries, including Hong Kong, where it is recognised that the public has a right to know about criminal investigations when they have reached a point where there are sufficient grounds to make arrests.

And once arrests have been made, it is difficult to see how the media could be banned from disclosing the identities of those arrested. Unless we are prepared to gag everyone who witnesses an arrest, we would be deceiving ourselves by having a rule to keep suspects' identities anonymous.

Even if no one witnesses an arrest, the disappearance of those arrested, even for a brief period, may generate unsettling speculation among those who know them. In some totalitarian countries, lack of publicity about arrests has ended up hurting the arrested, who may be victimised during detention.

Both the media and law enforcement agencies have a responsibility to prevent unfairly implicating suspects before they are found guilty by a court, the former by sticking to known facts, not speculation, and the latter by not publicising arrests unless there are good reasons to do so.

It is regrettable that the police's public attack on the ICAC has given the impression that senior members of the force are unimpeachable. Can the police management be absolutely sure of the innocence of the officers under arrest?

Historically, rampant corruption within the police led to the establishment of the ICAC in 1974. The graftbusters were so thorough and relentless in their pursuit of corrupt policemen that rank and file officers threatened mutiny in 1977. The row was defused only after the government issued a partial amnesty pardoning officers engaged in corruption activities before the ICAC was set up.

But animosity against the ICAC lingered within the police force for a long time before it subsided. The fear now is it may flare up again.

The ICAC is one of Hong Kong's success stories and the envy of the world. So is our police force, which has earned the reputation of being Asia's finest after it succeeded in eradicating syndicated corruption and keeping graft to a low level. The last thing that the SAR needs is a public spat between them.