Scrambling for a story

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 March, 2006, 12:00am

Macau police absorbed in cat-and-mouse pursuits of bad guys are becoming increasingly irritated at busybody newshounds, who are poking their noses in where they are not wanted. By eavesdropping on police radio communications with special devices, the aggressive reporters and photographers are sometimes beating police to the scenes of crimes and accidents. More embarrassingly, they are witnessing some bungling by Macau's finest.

Now the police seem determined to throw the newshounds off the scent by digitally encrypting their radio communications. The move has sent a shockwave through the press pack, prompting worry about how they are going to fill front pages in the near future.

A similar change in Hong Kong two years ago did not seem to cause such panic in the news community. As a compromise, Hong Kong police offered to alert journalists through bulletins on the force's website, but the officers in Macau seem reluctant to make the same concession.

However, the Macau media has different needs: a lack of in-depth political reporting - due to reluctance to offend the government - means that crime and accident stories are crucial for grabbing reader attention. Such articles dominate the front of the Macau Daily News, the largest local paper. Nine of its 10 front pages between February 12 and 21 carried such stories, often with the largest headline.

The tapping of police radios by journalists has been tolerated for at least two decades in the former Portuguese enclave. Like pimping, it is subject to prosecution under the organised-crime laws; also like pimping, it rarely leads to prosecution. Though eager to end the eavesdropping, the police recently bungled an emergency call-out to an accident, giving the media just the ammunition they needed to criticise the move. After a serious car accident, a number of 999 calls to the police went unanswered. Two bystanders helped the injured before someone finally reached an officer on the emergency line. Unless a reporter had arrived at the scene, the bungling would not have been exposed, claimed the Macau Daily News.

The police explanation - that the emergency telephone lines were busy - was not convincing, as the media went on to reveal more cases of police negligence. They brought up a 2001 scandal in which a police officer - who was supposed to be in the office dealing with emergency calls - was pleasure-driving in his Jeep, and caused an accident that killed a taxi driver.

But despite all their baying, the newshounds seem likely to be thrown off the tracks of the police. While this would be good if it led to better political coverage, the government might not thank the police for the closer scrutiny.