Donald Tsang

Time to put a stop to anonymous briefings

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2006, 12:00am

The need for transparency and accountability in government has become increasingly clear during the many ups and downs Hong Kong has experienced since the handover.

Accountability was a recurring theme during the administration of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Public concerns were frequently expressed over a perceived refusal by senior officials to take responsibility for their actions. His successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, has pledged to do better, by making the administration more accessible, transparent and accountable. But the way the government has been handling its media briefings calls into question its commitment to transparency and accountability.

On a number of important policy matters, information has been given to Hong Kong's media, including the South China Morning Post, at briefings held behind closed doors rather than at a formal press conference. More importantly, the information has been given on the strict condition that it must not be attributed to the officials providing it. Instead, the media has been required to quote anonymous government sources. This strategy was used last week to reveal the government has scaled back its plans for a new headquarters on the Tamar site. It was also the means by which proposals for a central slaughtering system were made public. Similar briefings have also been held on other important issues, including the management crisis at the KCRC.

Background briefings can, as the government suggests, serve a useful purpose when they are used to supplement details that have already been made public. And journalists often have good public interest reasons for protecting sources who leak information - even official sources - by keeping their identity confidential. Examples of this practice appear in this paper today.

But the need for confidentiality should not apply to government briefings, which have been used as a means of anonymously announcing changes - or proposed changes - to policies. Sometimes very senior officials have taken part.

Hong Kong's political environment can be stormy. It is easy to understand why officials might not want to put their head above the parapet at a press conference broadcast live. No doubt, it is also easier to sound out opinion on a controversial proposal if it is put into the public domain anonymously - rather than by the responsible official. But if a new policy, a change of policy, or fresh proposals are to be revealed this should be done publicly - and on the record. It is by dealing openly with the media - and through the media, the public - that transparency and accountability can be assured.

Mr Tsang is right to want to improve the accountability system introduced by Mr Tung in 2002. Putting an end to the use of anonymous briefings to announce important policies and proposals would be a step in the right direction.