Handling of Lamma report gives rise to suspicion
The government must now balance the interests of justice with those of the grieving families
Never let it be said that journalists aren't suspicious! When the government announces a press conference after 8.30pm - long after the main evening television news broadcasts, doubts and questions arise about the unusual arrangement.
Many couldn't help but speculate about the timing when the government released its internal investigation into the 2012 Lamma ferry tragedy, which claimed 39 lives. Conspiracy theories flew when it was announced that transport minister Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung would meet the media at such a late hour.
But what made people - especially the grieving relatives - even more suspicious was that only an executive summary of the report would be released. While the report identified misconduct by 17 marine officials up to directorate level, no names were revealed. The government's reason was simple: the findings had been handed over for criminal investigation; disclosing more would put justice at risk.
Government sources later explained that the press conference was held so late because Cheung needed to brief the relatives first, and some would only be available after office hours. This could be true, although the timing was not good for the media.
Both the relatives and the government had valid points on the question of whether to release the report. The disagreement touches on an important matter: the civil service disciplinary process.
According to the report, the Marine Department suffers from "systemic problems and deficiencies". In the private sector, the head of a malfunctioning department could expect to be fired and the whole department scrapped. But hiring and firing is not as simple for the government.
It is understandable that any government would maintain a fair system that can safeguard impartiality and integrity in the promotion and demotion process to maintain a high-quality civil service. Under civil service regulations, an employee accused of misconduct enjoys the right to defend themselves before being punished. When such misconduct is tantamount to a possible crime, the process is likely to be longer still. But unless it can explain this, the government will be accused of "delaying" or, worse, "deliberately delaying" the punishment of incompetence.
An old joke has it that, with firing impossible, the best way for a boss to get rid of an incompetent civil servant is to transfer them to another section. And the best way to convince the section head to take them? Give them top grades in their appraisal! Thus "don't look at the appraisal, ask around" becomes the gist of this joke.
The joke may be an exaggeration, yet the problem of disciplining public servants is real. In the case of the ferry tragedy, the government must act fairly in punishing those responsible, but must also be caring and understanding to the families. The situation risks becoming a political, not just a public relations, crisis if the focus is on lecturing the families on regulations and the law, especially with the public increasingly focusing on government accountability.
It is encouraging that Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has promised to meet the relatives to explain matters, and that the government may allow them to read the report if they agree to keep it confidential. Hopefully a balance can be struck between the need to avoid prejudice to criminal proceedings and the needs of the relatives.