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Tuesday, March 10, 2020, 11:05
Freedom of speech should prevail but it must not misinform
By Ho Lok-sang
Tuesday, March 10, 2020, 11:05 By Ho Lok-sang

Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung recently lodged a complaint to the Communications Authority and Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing, saying that an episode in the program Headliner aired by RTHK undermined police work and would lead to an erosion of law and order.

The main complaint, as Tang stressed, was not the style of presentation. He said that he often enjoyed the program, and would not mind being caricatured. What he opposes is misinformation and the unbalanced presentation of citizens’ views.

In particular, an episode that aired on Feb 14 gave police the nickname “Scary” (“scary” and “police” sound rather similar in Cantonese), accusing “Scary” of canceling patrols and hoarding supplies used for protection against infections. The police commissioner stressed that the police had never canceled its patrols and had never hoarded anti-epidemic supplies. The police always apply for supplies with the Government Logistics Department according to need, and distribute them to front-line officers strictly according to internal guidelines.

The head of corporate communications and standards at RTHK, Ng Man-yee, in her official response to Tang, wrote that “Headliner uses satire to reflect social situations of the moment and the views of citizens as informed by research.” The commissioner responded by saying he had no issue with this at all, but he could not accept the distortion of facts. He stressed that the alleged hoarding of supplies had never happened and the police had never canceled patrols. Moreover, if the program Headliner is to reflect citizens’ views, since many citizens support the police and condemn the violence and brutality of the rioters, such alternative views should also be presented. Tang, in his March 7 response to Ng’s letter, pointed out that ever since the protests started in June, Headliner never presented these alternative views.

All media and political officeholders need to realize that they wield a lot of influence on the public mind. Making this polarization worse goes against the interest of Hong Kong and will particularly hurt the interests of our young people in the long term

Another incident raised by the police commissioner is the Feb 28 episode, which suggests that all 11 cases of Hong Kong residents who were found dead from June through January were arbitrarily ruled by police as not suspicious. Tang stressed that the police had completed their investigations professionally and all the evidence collected indicated no foul play was involved.

The commissioner knows public trust in the police has fallen, and did not disagree with the fact that some police officers misbehaved. As a matter of fact, an official reprimand had been given to those found not to have conducted themselves properly. He further added that the reprimand was not the end of the story for those who had committed any wrongdoing. There may still be investigations and further action taken against the wrongdoers.

However, the fact that some police officers were responsible for wrongdoing does not mean that all police officers were wrongdoers. Unfortunately, some media, and not only RTHK, routinely describe the police as “monster police” or “dark police” and distort the facts to undermine the public’s trust in the police. One should not, therefore, be surprised when a caller to a phone-in program told Tang that his officers’ behavior during the anti-government protests was the reason people had lost faith in the force.

To be fair, in the face of extreme violence and criminal activities on a massive scale, often life-threatening, such as what we have witnessed in Hong Kong since June, it is to be expected that the necessary force to deal with the situation could be lethal, and that some police officers could lose their minds and behave badly. I am not condoning excessive force, but I need to point out that from the United Kingdom to France, from the United States to Chile, there have been complaints against police brutality each time the police had to handle massive protests and riots. In comparison, Hong Kong’s police force as a whole has not used excessive force. Media organizations that try to undermine the credibility of the police force are doing a disservice to Hong Kong.

The chief superintendent in charge of public relations recently wrote to Apple Daily to complain about the use of a misleading title in a news report. The news report was about a meeting between the police and the chairpeople of school principals associations and parent-teacher associations from all 18 districts in Hong Kong. In that meeting, the police tried to persuade principals and teacher-parent associations to dispel unsubstantiated rumors and to respond promptly to misinformation that circulates in social media or elsewhere, in the hope that students will not be led by misinformation to commit illegal acts. Apple Daily used the headline: “Police wrongly accuse students of illegal acts based on rumors.”

Sadly, the media is adding fuel to the fire of polarization in Hong Kong. I was appalled when one newly elected district councilor put a notice outside his office saying that “No entry for ‘blue ribbons’ and dogs.” Such polarization goes against the public interest. All media and political officeholders need to realize that they wield a lot of influence on the public mind. Making this polarization worse goes against the interest of Hong Kong and will particularly hurt the interests of our young people in the long term.

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute at Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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