HK should always uphold transparency, free flow of information

July 29, 2015 16:02
The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (inset) has called for tighter control of personal information in public registers. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong should always safeguard freedom of the press and free flow of information to ensure the rule of law in the territory.

Restricting access to public information could lead to abuses and other wrongdoings, and as such, government data should remain open and transparent for public scrutiny.

The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has urged the government to tighten control over personal information available in public registers such as identity card numbers and residential addresses.

The watchdog looked into 10 commonly-used registers, such as companies, marriage and voters' lists. It found that current laws and measures are inadequate to prevent misuse of personal information found in those registers.

Outgoing Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang said misuse can range from commercial pursuits to cyber bullying and stalking.

Chiang stressed that journalists are exempted from the third party data protection due to the public interest.

Section 61 of the ordinance states that a person is entitled to this exemption if he or she can prove reasonable grounds that data disclosure is in the public interest.

But enacting new legislation to protect such data could have an adverse impact on the role of journalists to ferret out the truth in the interest of the public.

Any new law that will abridge the journalists' right of access to public registers could hinder their work in checking, for instance, the background of a registered company or the ownership of a residential apartment that is for sale.

Should the government follow the commissioner's suggestion to limit access to public registers, it could increase the risk of doing business in the city, as well as the transparency of Hong Kong.

It could affect the work of journalists who want to dig out facts behind the scene, such as who is controlling a company, how the pro-Beijing camp is setting up a new company to achieve their political goals, and so on.

While the commissioner is raising concern over the privacy of individuals, some observers suspect that he may have a political motive in seeking to limit access to public registers.

For example, any such restrictions could prevent media and the public from finding out how Chinese officials and their family members may be hiding ill-gotten fortune in Hong Kong such as through the purchase of luxury flats or establishment of companies for investment in tje Hong Kong stock market.

Data available in these public registers could embarrass the Communist Party and affect its moral standing in Hong Kong.

Last year, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists unearthed nearly 22,000 tax-haven clients with addresses in mainland China and Hong Kong.

The confidential files include details of a real estate company co-owned by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law and British Virgin Islands companies set up by former premier Wen Jiabao’s son and son-in-law.

The information was discovered through the scrutiny of public records by dedicated journalists, including reporters from the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao Daily News.

In fact, Hong Kong media have been relying on public registers to check company directorships, home ownership transaction records as well as wedding applications.

So any proposal to limit access to public registers could affect media's work in digging out complicated relationships between business and the government.

Company registers also help journalists and the public to check on government appointments and determine if there are potential conflicts of interest.

Decades ago, Maria Tam, then chairperson of Transport Commission, was found to be a shareholder of a taxi firm, forcing the government not to reappoint her when her term expired.

Public records also show that the family of Paul Chan, the development bureau chief, owns a number of properties and has converted them into subdivided flats for rental income.

This is not the first time the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has suggested that new rules must be established to limit access of public register information.

In 2013, the government sought to study a proposed amendment to the Companies Ordinance, which would restrict public access to information on company directors.

The proposal drew massive opposition from journalists, industries and the public in general, who said limiting the free flow of information would deeply affect the business environment and transparency of the companies and their directors.

The government was forced to suspend the plan.

While the Privacy Commissioner said the rise of big data technology could lead to a potential risk of abuse of public register information, the fact remains that such records provide very useful information for the government in setting its policy agenda and understanding the Hong Kong situation.

The government should uphold its core value of transparency in information flow to attract global investors to do business in Hong Kong.

Following the Chinese example of restricting access to public information will never work for us.

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EJ Insight writer