Journalists have no privilege to access personal information, Hong Kong’s leader said on Tuesday, after media groups expressed concern that press freedom would be undermined by a government proposal to restrict public viewing of some data in the Companies Registry.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the amended restriction was also needed to prevent the “weaponisation” of personal information, as well as false information and hate speech online.
The proposal, outlined in a Legislative Council paper, seeks to prevent people from accessing the personal particulars of company directors amid “increasing public awareness of the need to protect personal data”.
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But the city’s largest journalists’ association on Monday demanded the immediate withdrawal of the proposal, submitted to the legislature by the Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau along with the Companies Registry, as it feared the media would be denied access to information needed for investigative reporting.
Personal information made available to the public in the registry includes the residential addresses and identification numbers of directors of registered businesses. Information on company secretaries and liquidators involved in the winding up of a business is also available.
Under the proposed changes, only correspondence addresses and partial ID numbers would be accessible. Personal data for public inspection should be limited only to that strictly necessary for legal purposes, it was suggested.
“Personal information should be protected … It should not be disclosed unless there is a crucial need for it to be made public,” Lam said before her weekly meeting with the Executive Council on Tuesday morning.
“I cannot see the reason for journalists to have that privilege. Why should information that is not available to others be accessible to journalists? None of the people in Hong Kong should enjoy such privilege.”
Lam said the existence of these public databases, including the company registry and certificate of particulars of motor vehicles, already demonstrated the balance between privacy and access to such government information.
The bureau and registry, which keeps records of local and non-Hong Kong companies and enforces laws governing the operations of businesses, plan to submit subsidiary legislation to Legco for “negative vetting” in May, meaning they hope to “enact first and deliberate later”.
The new data inspection regime would be implemented in three phases and require amendments to the Companies Ordinance.
Companies would first be given the power to withhold the residential addresses and part of the ID numbers of directors from public viewing with immediate effect.
The next stage would bar the public from viewing “protected information” listed in the registry from October 2022. The final phase, pencilled in for December 2023, would let people apply to the registry for protection of any other data.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed “strong opposition” to the proposal, which it said would severely compromise press freedom, and called for its immediate withdrawal.
Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing said the proposed moves were unreasonable and would further weaken the media’s power to monitor the government and disclose wrongdoings.
Yeung added that the “specified persons” who could access certain data in the registry under the proposal did not include the media, which would face greater difficulties in conducting searches.
Investigative reports that uncovered irregularities or wrongdoing by officials after journalists dug through the registry were likely to become very difficult, he said.
“The media’s monitoring abilities will be seriously crippled and this will have a big impact on the public’s rights to know,” Yeung added.
The practice of searching public databases for information came into focus after the arrest and prosecution of a veteran investigative reporter in November for violating the relevant laws when she searched for some car owners’ details.
Media groups were outraged after authorities arrested and prosecuted Bao Choy Yuk-ling, an RTHK contributor, for allegedly violating the Road Traffic Ordinance on suspicion of making a false declaration when searching for personal details of car owners in a government database.
Choy, who pleaded not guilty to two counts of making false declarations, accessed car owner data for an episode of an RTHK television show about the Yuen Long mob attack in 2019.
Defence lawyers argued in court last Wednesday that Choy’s search of car owners’ registration information in a public register should be considered legal and not regarded as making a false declaration.
Principal Magistrate Ivy Chui Yee-mei ruled there was a prima facie case against Choy based on the evidence presented in court, and would hand down her judgment on April 22. Choy continued to be granted bail.
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