Xinhua News Agency

Dressed up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00am

There have been disturbing recent developments suggesting that, despite the government's insistence on its respect for freedom of the press, it does not seem to understand the meaning of the term and, in fact, is narrowing the room in which a free press can function.

A desire to dictate how the press should behave has been evident since colonial times. For example, the government routinely issued statements attributed to 'a government spokesman'. No follow-up question could be asked of this anonymous spokesman.

The US State Department, by contrast, assigns a spokesman - with a name and a face - to answer media queries every day. Even mainland China is catching up and the foreign ministry now holds daily press conferences.

The Hong Kong government's ignorance of the role of the news media was painfully exposed during the visit by Vice-Premier Li Keqiang . Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen confused government departments and news media. 'Every single activity of the vice-premier has been covered by the media,' he said.

But then it turned out that, while the vice-premier had taken part in about 20 public functions, reporters were allowed to cover only 10 of them. The others were covered by the Information Services Department, which is a propaganda organ. The department then distributed handouts to the media to be used as 'news'.

It is not possible for a news organisation to tell how and to what extent footage of an event given to them by the government has been edited. For example, Xinhua, in its report on a meeting between Li and Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, said the mainland leader had urged him to make some achievements, a remark that can be interpreted as an admonition. That bit, however, was missing from the government clip, something that a news organisation wouldn't have left out of its coverage.

In 2006, it looked as though the government was ready to acknowledge the difference between a government department and an independent media organisation when it set up a committee to review public service broadcasting, under the chairmanship of Raymond Roy Wong. However, the committee's recommendations were clearly not to the government's liking. Instead, it designated RTHK as the public service broadcaster while keeping it as a government department and has just appointed a civil servant to be its director of broadcasting.

Wong recently said the Information Services Department focused on window-dressing rather than news and called on media organisations to boycott official footage and press releases.

Media organisations are faced with a hard choice. When the government controls news events and denies access to the media, should they accept government handouts as news? If the decision is to use the handout, it must be labelled as such. The public must be made aware that reporters were not allowed to cover the event and that what they are viewing is government propaganda.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1