The police force's public relations unit has been surreptitiously recording telephone conversations with reporters for the past six months, it has been discovered. The Police Public Relations Branch's (PPRB) undercover recordings, made without the consent of the other party and which do not carry any warning to callers that their discussions are being monitored, has outraged the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. Most calls to the branch are from reporters, but those from the public are also recorded. Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Stephen Lau Ka-men, alerted to the practice by the South China Morning Post, promised to investigate the recordings and why the practice was begun. The branch provided two different explanations to the Post of the reasons for installing the monitoring system. 'Sometimes the inquiries and the answers are quite sensitive. So we want to ensure we follow the guidelines,' said a spokeswoman on Wednesday, responding by telephone to a faxed question. When asked to explain what this meant, she said she was referring to 'what we can release and can't release'. Later, a statement added that 'many reporters are aware of the recording system in the PPRB newsroom'. Hong Kong Journalists' Association chair Mak Yin-ting said she was shocked when told about the recording system by the Post. Officers' answers to questions would be affected by the taping system and they would be restricted in the amount of information they could pass on, she said. 'It is a form of manipulating the flow of information. It is unacceptable.' Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor director Law Yuk-kai said: 'That is very odd. I don't think there's a need to do this.' He said recording might be needed for complex or 'very sensitive' cases, but not every call need to be monitored. It is not illegal in Hong Kong for either party to tape record telephone conversations and consent is not required from the person at the other end. Permission from the other party to record is understood to be required in other places, such as Australia. In a faxed response received on Friday, the bureau said it was only trying to give a better service. 'The calls are recorded in order to improve the newsroom's service to the media and the public. For example, in case of uncertainty on the exact questions raised by the media, the taped telephone conversation between PPRB staff and the reporter can be played back for clarification.' It added that the tapes were kept for about 50 days and were not monitored unless 'there is a genuine need to do so'. 'In order to further improve our service to the media and the public, we will look into the possibility of introducing an audio message into the telephone system advising the callers that the calls will be recorded.' Mr Lau said he would urge the branch to follow what he called 'good practice' and advise callers their conversations may be recorded. The Australian Law Reform Commission has said that recording conversations without the knowledge of the other party 'could lead to honesty and frankness in discussion being compromised, and discussion itself becoming cautious and bland, losing its intimate, personal and informal character'. On the other hand, the practice could be used to protect individuals' 'interests, particularly in commercial and business contexts'. The Law Reform Commission in Hong Kong examined the issue as part of its 1996 privacy report which dealt with regulating the interception of communications. It decided against regulating the recording of conversations, which had the consent of at least one of the parties involved, but agreed the practice 'may be immoral and offensive in certain circumstances'. 'However, such conduct should not be made criminal merely because it does not measure up to a high moral standard.' A PPRB spokesman said the decision to record incoming calls on the media inquiries line, 2865 5477, had nothing to do with the scandal surrounding an Apple Daily reporter who paid bribes for speedy information from police. The reporter paid two officers from the police communications section, which handles 999 emergency calls, for tips about crime stories. They were arrested in late November, about two months before the tape recording started on February 9. 'These are two separate issues. There is no connection,' the spokesman said.