Officials give prying media the runaround

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 February, 2004, 12:00am

Immigration and customs departments are the slowest to answer questions

Maybe it's the ostrich technique. Or perhaps it's a guilt complex.

But whatever the case, the decision by government departments to offer a 'no comment' or delay a response to a reporter's question for several days is inexcusable, says a media analyst.

The comments came in response to a South China Morning Post audit of seven government departments during the past three days.

The Post investigated the average response and turnaround time to common press inquiries - and the results were mixed.

Police, customs, immigration, housing, health, social welfare and justice departments were given questions on relevant topics.

Topping the list as the most lethargic public affairs unit was the Immigration Department, which took more than 11/2 working days to respond to a query on Hong Kong's policy towards asylum seekers. The response was: 'The Hong Kong government has a clear policy of not granting asylum to any person.'

But another unit came close. The Customs Department took a similar length of time to produce a written response to a query on security issues involving shipping containers.

The police and justice departments were quick to offer a response on an overseas murder probe and a pending international extradition; the housing and health departments took just over a day to process basic statistics; while Social Welfare promptly offered an enthusiastic supply of data and official comments on street-sleepers.

Information services assistant director Mary Leung, who has overall responsibility for the handling of media questions, said the policy was to 'respond to enquiries within one day'.

'While my colleagues posted to information units of various departments will strive to meet this target, I hope you would appreciate that response times to different enquiries will vary, depending on whether required information is readily available, the complexity of issues involved and, where clearance is necessary, the availability of subject officers concerned,' she said.

Media consultant Andrew Laxton, of PPR Asia, said the Post's random audit offered a glaring insight into the inner mechanics of the Hong Kong government.

'If it takes the government days to answer, it clearly shows the government's internal structure is not working properly ... accountability starts at the top and works its way down,' said Mr Laxton.

'If you put a query to the government you have to expect a turn-around to be within half a day.' He said the 'ostrich technique' was often used.

'The classic thing is the ostrich technique which is to stick their head in sand and wait for the issue to blow over. They think if they do not provide comment on a story it will not be published but that is a very dangerous approach.'

He said the ideal situation was to make every story educational, well balanced, fair and accurate.

'Refusing to comment implies guilt ... you have to allow reporters to tell the story from both sides.'