The government’s preference for one-way communication and limited public consultation fuels transparency fears
By Joey Kwan & Tiffany Tsim
Journalists scramble to place their microphones and set up their cameras in the lobby of the Chief Executive’s Office where the Executive Council meets. They are waiting for the Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, to respond to pressing issues of the day. In the end, Leung walks away after answering just three questions, leaving the journalists to pack up and rush to the next assignment. For Hong Kong’s local news reporters, this happens all too often.
In 2013, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) counted the number of such media “stand-ups” and press conferences Leung had given in his first 11 months of office. They found he had done 94 stand-ups and given no personal press conferences. His predecessor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, gave 47 stand-ups but conducted two personal press conferences in the same time period. “Leung has the most stand-ups [among the three chief executives] and seldom holds press conferences,” says Sham Yee-lan, the chairperson of the HKJA. “He mainly responds through stand-ups before the Executive Council meetings, even for all controversial items.
Hong Kong prides itself on being a city with high transparency and a free flow of information, qualities that set it apart from cities in the Mainland. But increasingly, critics say various aspects of the city are becoming less transparent.
In terms of the media, the government’s selective dissemination of information has made journalists’ jobs harder. During the Occupy Movement last year, the Chief Executive gave just one Chinese interview to TVB and one English interview to ATV among the local news media. He did not respond to questions raised by other journalists waiting for him at the stand-up positions after each programme.
“Different media have different audiences and obviously [the government] treats the media very unfairly,” Sham says. “The media will ask all kinds of questions and perhaps these questions break the hearts of the officials [so they are unwilling to be interviewed].”
Instead of holding press conferences where they can be questioned about decisions, policies and actions, Sham observes that the members of the Leung administration tend to use blog posts to make announcements, state positions and float ideas. The HKJA Annual Report 2014 said that Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah updated his blog every week between March and May 2014 and first reminded the public it should be aware of the budget deficit in his blog rather than through the media. During the Occupy Movement, his boss Leung did not hold any press conferences but gave three televised statements.
“Leung’s government gives out information only from their direction. They only hide and write their blogs to issue important policies,” says Sham. “It is a very bad way of distributing information.”
Phyllis Tsang Kam-man, who has worked as a journalist for more than 10 years, does not mind officials’ use of blogs and social media. However, she thinks it is important that they respond to the media on issues they raise online.
“Facebook and blogs cannot replace the role of the media because the media challenges and monitors the government through questioning,” she explains. “Talking in their own words on Facebook, blogs and websites is another thing.”
Tsang has witnessed increasing physical restrictions on journalists covering the government and Legislative Council. At the old Central Government Offices, she could walk freely between different wings and interview officials when they passed by. Later, the administration put up fences and beefed up security. Since the administration moved to the new Central Government Complex, journalists have to walk a long way from one press area to another and get few chances to interview officials as they get in and out of their cars.
It is not only in daily reporting that journalists face constraints. Although the Code on Access to Information was issued in 1995, it is non-statutory and journalists still face limited access to government information. Under the code, members of the public can inquire about government information covered by the code. In 1997, the HKJA conducted a test where it requested documents from government departments. Mak Yin-ting, who was the chairperson of the HKJA at the time, says only around 30 per cent of the requests were answered.
Mak also recalls a case where the government failed to provide a journalist with statistics about the seizure of poisoned milk powder in 2008. It was not until the journalist complained to the Office of the Ombudsman that the government offered partial statistics.
The Office of the Ombudsman criticised the government for its unsatisfactory performance in implementing the Code on Access to Information in 2010 and urged it to legislate for free access to information in 2012. More than 88 countries, including China, have laws protecting the right to access information. In Hong Kong, the Act on Access to Information has been before the Law Reform Commission for three years.
Mak says the current system in Hong Kong does not meet international standards and she does not see that the government has any intention of making changes. “Before Leung Chun-Ying took office, he signed the HKJA’s Freedom of Press Charter but he has done nothing up to now,” Mak says. “The government’s attitude is mysterious and it is reluctant to talk about it.”
It is not just the news media who are complaining about the lack of transparency. The government is also criticised for a perceived deterioration in the level of public participation and consultation on issues that affect the public.
Albert Lai Kwong-tak, policy convener of an independent think tank, The Professional Commons, has been studying government policies for more than 20 years. He says the way the government handles public participation in policy setting has gone downhill. “It is going backwards, from having detailed public participation involving not only the public but also scholars and environmental groups, towards a limited and non-transparent process,” Lai says.
Lai recalls that the Council for Sustainable Development set up guidelines for public participation in 2004, which divided the process into five stages, including forming support groups with experts, completing “Invitation for Response” documents with detailed explanations of policies and discussing the proposals with the public.
Lai cites the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee as a relatively successful case in encouraging public participation from 2004 to 2010. He says the government held many briefings, roving exhibitions and community workshops to enhance public understanding of the project to design the Central and Wan Chai harbourfront. Lai notes owners of boats in Causeway Bay had to relocate for the project but they participated in the policy decision-making process and accepted the decision.
It was a different story for the government’s plan to revitalise the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. In August the Leisure and Cultural Services Department announced the government would redevelop the Avenue of Stars landmark with the New World Development Company Limited, without consulting the public or calling for bids.
The government explained the developer would be responsible for the project because its contract to manage the Avenue of Stars had not yet expired. However, the revitalisation work covers not only the Avenue of Stars, but also the whole East Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront area stretching from Art Square at Salisbury Garden to the Hung Hom MTR Station.
The administration gave in and launched a public consultation after fierce public criticism and opposition. But the critics were dismayed to learn the consultation would take the form of invitation-only focus group meetings held behind closed doors. Most importantly, the government held the consultation with the developer to discuss design details rather than the background and management of the project.
Many saw the process as a “fake” consultation. “When the government has a clear stance in a consultation [exercise], people will think the opinions collected won’t be objective, so the consultation won’t be credible, it all becomes meaningless,” says Lai.
Lai says the root of the problem is that the government decides before asking for public opinion. “If the government does not respect the bottom-up approach and makes high-level decisions, all work initiating [public participation] is in vain,” he says.
Katty Law Ngar-ning, a member of the Victoria Harbourfront Concern Group, agrees with Lai’s assessment. She says the government rejected her request to see the management contract for the Avenue of Stars because it would be divulging business secrets. She suspects there is collusion between the government and the developer.
“A building with two floors of restaurants will be added in the new waterfront area,” she says. “We really wonder why such things are added when the waterfront is originally for public relaxation. The project seems to only benefit the developer.”
Although the public is losing faith in the government’s public consultations, some statutory bodies still express opinions that go against the government despite the fact that it has no obligation to follow their advice. Members of these bodies are mostly appointed by the Chief Executive and come from various but relevant related fields. On the Antiquities Advisory Board, there are architects, professors, district councillors, accountants, and representatives from the business field.
Ho Pui-yin, a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board since 2010, says she finds it strange that the board includes members with little connection to the conservation of historic buildings and monuments. She notes the appointed members have political stances and are mostly conservative in the sense that they consider antiquities on the basis of economic value.
Despite the board’s shortcomings, Ho thinks the government’s attitude has changed due to the board’s increasing popularity. Formerly, it was seen as a government-backed body that passed everything placed before it but now the government treats the board as a body from which it seeks opinions. Ho thinks this is because the government does not want board members to explain their opposing arguments to the media.
Ho views public support as a source of power. “I think the Antiquities Advisory Board is leading the public discussion,” she says. “Although we have no legal power and right to formulate policies, we are recognised by the public, which gives us invisible support that pushes us to voice out problems.”
She is relatively optimistic that statutory bodies can influence government decisions in the long term. “The government will not change immediately but we need to persist and tell them the arguments. The more we persuade the government, the less it insists, thus changing the situation,” Ho says. “Society needs to progress slowly.”
As Ho says, it may take time for the government to improve its transparency in distributing information to the media and engaging public participation, but there are communication failures happening now and they have clear causes.
Joseph Wong Wing-ping, 67, who was secretary for the civil service from 2000 to 2006, thinks the problem lies in Hong Kong’s undemocratic political system. Wong says democracy allows citizens to elect their own government and choose important policies through voting for a candidate in an election and participating in public consultations. If the government fails to respond to the general public’s will, it will suffer by losing the next election.
“Yet, even if the Hong Kong government fails to follow the public’s will, it has no consequences, at most a low popularity but not affecting its ruling position,” Wong says. “Without the check on power, something bad is bound to happen.”
Edited by Edith Lin