Rules of freedom under pressure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2009, 12:00am

The government has been accused of protecting the rich and powerful because of its inaction over the assault of two foreign journalists in Tai Po by the minders of Zimbabwe first-daughter Bona Mugabe.

The assault of Sunday Times journalists Colin Galloway and Tim O'Rourke at the hands of Zimbabwean security officers Mapfumo Marks and Manyaira Reliance Pepukai occurred outside Mugabe's Tai Po home on February 13.

The British photographers entered the private residential complex to conduct interviews and deliver a letter when they were challenged by the guards. Mugabe, who was about to attend her classes at the City University of Hong Kong, was inside her house when the scuffle broke out.

The Department of Justice decided not to prosecute the Zimbabwe police and intelligence officers on June 8 and director of public prosecutions Grenville Cross told a Legislative Council panel a month later the guards had acted sensibly on concerns for Mugabe's safety.

He said the guards were concerned about two strangers who approached unannounced, their changing explanations for their presence and refusal to provide identification.

Cross said internal reviews found the case was borderline or marginal and that the public interest did not require prosecution.

Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association Russell Coleman also told lawmakers at the meeting the government's decision was not a blow to freedom of the press.

'The crux of the matter was whether the [guards] were genuinely concerned with the safety of Miss Mugabe,' Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung added. 'We have evidence to show the [guards] were really concerned about Miss Mugabe and had taken measures to minimise the danger posed.'

Wong's point that the bodyguards' actions were justified based on the perceived threat was taken to task by Democratic lawmaker Albert Chan Ho-yan, who said such a test was prone to abuse.

'The decision allows ambiguity that bodyguards can injure ordinary citizens when they are carrying out their duties,' he said.

Fellow party legislator James To Kun-sun quipped the man on the street would now have to make way for the rich and powerful.

Civic Party lawmaker and representative Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee said: 'I don't see any evidence of the journalists trying to attack the person of Miss Mugabe or trying to break into the house.

'So is it easier to assault the journalists than to close the door [of the house]?'

The lawyer representing the two photographers, Michael Vidler, called the decision 'a bodyguards' charter' adding: 'We are looking into the possibility of a judicial review. Our press are here to ensure accountability and transparency. If people who have the money to pay for bodyguards can attack any journalist who they can later say they perceived as a threat to their safety, where will that leave us?'

The two guards reportedly entered territory on tourist visas, meaning they were working illegally. Marks and Pepukai have already left Hong Kong.

Other voices

The Hong Kong Journalist Association wants Zimbabean first lady Grace Mugabe banned from Hong Kong for assaulting a photographer repeatedly in Tsim Sha Tsui earlier this year.

The association also wants the two guards extradited to Hong Kong as they have since left, or at the very least an entry ban imposed on them.

'The fact that the alleged perpetrators are associated with President Mugabe, a known diplomatic ally of the Beijing authorities, gives the stark impression that free expression and the protection of journalists exercising those rights can be set aside for political reasons,' the association said in a letter to the Legislative Council.

National Director of the International Bodyguard Association Bruce McLaren said the bodyguards' actions were a breach of industry standards and were without legal justification. He said the ruling undermined credibility of professional industry standards.

He added that bodyguards' professional standards were incompatible with requests by their employers to use excessive force.