Open media briefings central to accountability

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 August, 2010, 12:00am

Governments around the world have long used the media as a way of getting their message to the people. An informed citizenry is a critical part of any modern society, and there are few alternatives so far to the media when it comes to disseminating information to a mass audience. In the best case, the media's role in this process involves true public service - helping people understand policies, providing feedback, and promoting public participation in informed political debate.

And when such discussions take place in the light of day, with clear stances being taken by the government on what it's doing and why, that's often the case.

But that's much less true when government officials hide behind anonymity to escape accountability. Sadly, that still happens in Hong Kong, despite a pledge by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen after he took office as chief executive to make his administration more accessible, transparent and accountable. Officials still disclose information to the media, including the South China Morning Post, behind closed doors, on the basis that it cannot be attributed to them. Instead the ground rules for those briefings are that officials can only be referred to as 'government sources' or 'informed sources', or even 'a person familiar with the subject'. These briefings can involve very senior officials talking about policy issues or matters of public importance that they are in charge of.

It is good, therefore, to hear officials agree to publicly announce major policy initiatives from now on, even if they did not give details of how the government would change its ways.

It's true that anonymous background briefings by expert officials can serve a useful purpose - there are times, for example, when they can help explain or clarify complex issues, without the pressure of on-the-record statements being made. But when it comes to announcing new policies or proposing new ideas, it's hard to argue that the government should hide behind nameless officials. Let's get these announcements on the record. It is only in this way that transparency and accountability can be assured.

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