The attention of Umac Watchdog (the Watchdog) was brought to the fire incident occurred on 23 April 2015 followed by an alleged violation of press freedom by staff members of the University of Macau (the University). Having studied an unedited footage of the night and scrutinised standards adopted by courts in jurisdiction with a reputation for privacy protection, the Watchdog makes the following points.
The University’s Attitude towards the Press
In the uncut video screened at the public hearing which took place on 24 April, an individual who identified himself as the Master of the college, in an attempt to prevent the journalist from videotaping, said to the journalist: 1.) do you have a permission? 2.) the incident is over; there is nothing more worth videotaping; this is a private place and I ask you to leave immediately.
The words and bodily actions of the college master suggested a mentality which press coverage shall be limited / restricted. The pledge that “the officials shall respond to questions until the exhaustion of questions” given by Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Alexis TAM to the press was not observed by the University.
The Watchdog regrets the University’s lack of respect for the public’s right to information and repeated violations of press freedom despite the urge by the Audit Commission for higher transparency of the University as a public entity subject to public oversight.
Controversy over Privacy
Staff and students of the University argued that journalists had not respected students’ privacy and should not have videotaped the scene.
In the West, “privacy” and “press freedom” may be two conflicting ideas. In the European Union where laws on privacy protection are famously strict, in the light of the Von Hannover v Germany case decided by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004, despite the ruling that tabloids publishing photos of celebrities’ daily life were considered an infringement of privacy, the criteria adopted by the Court in striking a balance between privacy and press freedom may be applicable to our case . They are: a. a matter of “private life”; b. the involvement of “public interest”.
The fire service did arrive at the scene after the fire alarm going off. The students were evacuated from their rooms to the ground according to the University’s safety plan, rather than congregating on the ground for social activities. It is just counter-intuitive to consider the situation of evacuees in a fire evacuation as utterly their “private life”.
Although the fire service revealed that a student-owned electrical appliance had been the cause of the fire, any fire incident might involve public safety concerns. Further, the construction and maintenance of the facility concerned were at the expense of public money. The involvement of significant public interest in this fire incident was unquestionable.
Usually the debates on “the balance between privacy and press freedom” in Europe are about targeted invasion to privacy – tabloids making others’ private life as news for profit. The footage shown at the hearing on 26 April and the testimonies from other journalists at the scene have rebutted the online rumour about the cameraman “focusing on body parts of students” and “chasing girls”. Also, the students were not dressed in a way which ordinary people might deem embarrassing. No shots were found offending decency and good custom. More importantly, precedents of making the appearance of evacuees in a haste are extremely rare in Macau news coverage. The Watchdog regrets the misleading press statement released by the communication office of the University.
The Watchdog considers that the impediment presented to the work of journalists in the name of “students’ privacy” in this fire case was unjustifiable.
Based on above grounds, the Watchdog urges Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Alexis TAM to supervise the University to fully implement of the policy of enhancing transparency and ending hostility to the press, in a view of effective prevention of violation of press freedom from happening in the future.