Donald Tsang

Despite privacy clamour, Tsang won't rein in media

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 September, 2006, 12:00am

Reading carefully from a prepared statement, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was on thin ice as he waded into the controversy over the publication of photos showing Twins pop star Gillian Chung Yan-tung changing her clothes backstage at a concert.

In marked contrast to his swift pledge to pull out all stops to round up the men who assaulted Democrat legislator Albert Ho Chun-yan, Mr Tsang appeared more hesitant. Speaking for the first time on the row a week after publication of the pictures in Easy Finder magazine, Mr Tsang stressed the importance of striking a balance between press freedom and the protection of personal privacy.

He said he shared Chung's feelings, but did not elaborate. In light of public concern over the Chung case, Mr Tsang has revealed the government will re-examine the issue on the basis of a Law Reform Commission report published early this year. The aim, he said, was to find a 'new consensus on the legislative front' to prevent a repeat of the affair.

Despite the uproar, Mr Tsang has avoided pouring oil onto the fire. He urged people to take another look at the relevant proposals contained in three reports published by the Law Reform Commission since 1999.

The first report on intrusion into personal privacy in 1999 prompted the media industry to form a self-regulatory body composed of media professionals and community figures to handle complaints against media infringement of personal privacy. Yet since it lacks statutory powers, the Hong Kong Press Council has been ridiculed as a toothless tiger.

While critics doubt its effectiveness in bringing about a marked improvement in media ethics and practices, others say it is better than nothing. This is because the idea of a statutory body with 'teeth', floated by the Law Reform Commission, could have a serious negative impact on a free press.

Two more reports relating to privacy infringements - in December 2004 and March this year - failed to stir much debate. And in view of strong opposition from most, if not all, local newspapers, the government refrained from taking the issue further.

Caught between a media strongly resistant to new regulation of its operations and vocal groups such as performing artists clamouring for a law prohibiting media intrusion into privacy, Mr Tsang has avoided taking sides.

Faced with a media sector known for scepticism bordering on hostility towards any government moves deemed a threat to a free press, Mr Tsang is keen not to initiate legislative curbs on media intrusion - or be seen to be doing so. This is simply because, like politicians and governments elsewhere, making enemies of the media could do him more harm than good.

Known for his obsession with maintaining a good public image and high popularity, Mr Tsang is critically aware, on the one hand, of the importance of keeping up good relations with the media.

On the other hand, he feels pressure to address public concerns over privacy arising from Chung's case.

Despite the high-profile protests led by the entertainment industry, it looks unlikely the case will generate strong momentum and political pressure for drastic action such as new laws and regulations to curb media intrusion into people's personal lives. Officials have indicated plans to raise the penalty under existing law against obscene publications to deter repeat offenders.

For doubters, the effectiveness of the current approach of self-regulation and deterrent penalties for obscene publications leaves much to be desired.

But in the current social and political environment, it is arguably the less controversial but more practical way to warn members of the media of the perils of tougher laws if they breach society's moral standards.

Chris Yeung, the Post's editor-at-large, is a member of the Press Council