The right of citizens to obtain public data such as information on registered companies or land records is at the core of freedom of information in our city.
It is also a necessary tool for media to fulfill their role as the fourth estate.
Therefore, any sudden change in the official rules and procedures for the search of such data would inevitably arouse public concern or even suspicion over the government’s intention.
Recently the Company Registry has announced new arrangements for the public to search for information of registered companies.
The new arrangements require searchers to declare their intention to do so before they begin with their search.
This new requirement has immediately raised concern, especially among media workers who fear that it might be the government’s latest attempt to curb press freedom in Hong Kong.
However, their concern might turn out to be unnecessary.
As far as I know, the new arrangements are actually introduced in order to bring the current company information search system more into line with Article 45 of the existing Company Ordinance.
In other words, it is more of a technical adjustment than a policy change.
Besides, the new arrangements are also introduced at the request of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data as a precautionary measure to prevent personal information obtained from the Companies Registry from being used for direct marketing or cold calling.
Some media workers and journalists have expressed concern over the new arrangements, fearing that they might fall into legal traps when searching for information of registered companies and their directors particularly in the course of investigative reporting.
To address their concern, the Companies Registry has confirmed in a press release that reporters will be able to fulfill the new requirements as long as they declare beforehand that their search is intended to verify the information of a particular company, its board directors or senior executives for journalistic use.
Besides, Article 61 of the present Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance already exempts the gathering of personal information for journalistic use from any legal liability.
Therefore, I believe the new arrangements introduced by the Companies Registry is unlikely to undermine the public’s right to know.
However, I do hope that the Companies Registry would take further steps to allay public concern by providing more detailed explanation of its new measures on information search.
Perhaps the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data should also reconsider whether it is necessary for journalists to declare their intention prior to their search.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 10.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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