Police rules on handling media need refining

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 April, 2004, 12:00am

As the police reaction to the past week's protests comes under closer scrutiny, some of the questions raised will involve the treatment of media representatives reporting on the events.

After the operations to clear protesters from inside and outside the Central Government Offices last Friday morning, there were claims that excessive force was used in the removal of some photographers. There were also allegations that the media's ability to do its work had been infringed. The latter claim surfaced again on Wednesday after the police stopped a Cable Television staff member from filming just outside Government House.

In comparison to similar clashes elsewhere between protesters and police - and between media and police - the events under discussion were not terribly serious. On a scale of 0 to 10, they would not even rate a 1. But there are important principles involved.

Arrangements based on these principles could help avoid confrontations at future protests, which might well be much bigger and with greater potential for serious conflict. New arrangements could also help safeguard crucial freedoms: the media's right to do its job and the public's right to be informed.

In the Cable TV incident, a police superintendent stopped the filming in part because the staff member did not produce a press identification badge. The superintendent also acted on a belief that he was only a driver for the station. The remarks indicate a lack of understanding about the law, as well as how media organisations function. Any citizen has the right to film or photograph in public, while media workers often wear many hats.

At the Central Government Offices protests, there were scuffles inside the compound and outside the gate on Lower Albert Road. Police had moved in to clear both groups of protesters because the first was illegal and the second had the potential to block civil servants as they arrived for work.

As far as the press was concerned, much of the confrontation - and the need to remove the protesters - could have been avoided if a police liaison officer had been there to negotiate. The presence of a liaison officer is provided for under the department's internal guidelines for dealing with the media. Such a person could have arrived at a compromise allowing the media to cover the clearances without disrupting police work.

Other portions of these guidelines state that the police will respect the freedom of the press and offer 'every possible assistance' at the scene. That these guidelines took a back seat in both instances indicates that the police might need to establish more detailed procedures for officers on the frontlines in such protests. The comments Police Commissioner Dick Lee Ming-kwai made after meeting media representatives yesterday indicated that he recognised this need.

Mr Lee also said that both sides agreed the police would set up working areas for the media when necessary. This might help prevent conflicts if similar situations arise later, but the arrangements should not limit journalists' ability to cover news by cordoning them off from events.

Whatever solutions are arrived at, they should recognise the role of the media in a free society, and the public's right to know. The media's presence at protests is a check on excessive use of police powers, and procedures should recognise this public interest function.

Whether methods short of physical removal could have been used to disperse the CGO protesters is a slightly different matter that Mr Lee and the force will have to examine. As for the handling of the media, the existing guidelines have proved inadequate and should certainly be reconsidered or further refined.