HONG KONG, July 26, 2004 — ; A series of "cowboy" raids by Hong Kong graft-busters on eight major media organizations have stunned journalists, re-igniting concerns over freedom of the press in the former British colony since its handover to Chinese rule.
Officers of the territory's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) raided the desks and homes of several court reporters in the weekend raids in a move that has left media and rights groups stunned by its apparent heavy-handedness, RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin services report.
One newspaper railed against the "cowboy tactics" of the ICAC, saying the agency was jockeying for a higher profile following a dull life in recent years.
"Never before has a government department obtained a warrant to search so many media organizations in one raid," former chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) Mak Yin-ting told RFA's Mandarin service.
"In the past there have been cases in which the offices of a single or a couple of newspapers have been searched. But this raid took in eight newspapers," said Mak, who has worked in the Hong Kong media for 25 years.
The government's Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) Web site reported that the raids were conducted after papers named a woman understood to be in a witness protection program. Six people were arrested, of whom four were bailed and the other two "freed but told not to interfere with ICAC investigations," RTHK said.
The woman was one of nine people arrested two weeks ago for inflating a company's share price and was understood to be held under the ICAC's witness protection program, local media reported.
Hong Kong's second-in-command Donald Tsang defended the ICAC's actions, saying that press freedom had not been undermined by the raids.
"It is fully respected, but at the same time, we are a developed law-abiding society which respects the law. We also attach the importance to the function of the judiciary," Tsang told reporters.
Journalists called for a more detailed explanation.
"We felt that this action by the ICAC was inappropriate," Mak told RFA reporter Shi Shan. "According to our understanding, the issue at stake was that some of the court reporters had printed material that was heard during court proceedings. But this can be dealt with directly by the court. There's no need to apply for a separate warrant."
"We would like to know on what legal basis that decision was made. We call on the ICAC to come out and explain its actions when this case is resolved," Mak said.
The English-language South China Morning Post , one of the newspapers raided, warned in an editorial Monday that the high-handed tactics used in the raids would strain public trust in media freedom at a sensitive time in Hong Kong's history.
"Public trust in freedom of the press relies on both the existence of that freedom and the perception that it is secure. Sensitivity about the topic is already heightened after months of speculation that three of the citys most popular talk-show hosts have been forced off the air by political intimidation," the paper said.
It accused ICAC investigators of using far more force than the situation called for, straining relations with the media at a time when the organization needed strong public support.
"It comes as a surprise that the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Saturday staged high-profile raids on newspaper offices — ; flashing warrant cards, catch-all search warrants, and copies of legislation threatening up to 10 years' jail," the paper said.
"There is one plausible explanation for the cowboy tactics: much of the ICACs work these days involves low-key activities, such as education about corruption and how to prevent it. It is a long time since it had a dazzling, high-profile case," it said.