Modest proposals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 March, 1996, 12:00am

Few people know just how many phones are tapped in Hong Kong. The Government has consistently refused to say, although the funds recently allocated to the Independent Commission Against Corruption to buy extra surveillance equipment suggest the number is on the rise.

Nor is it even known who authorises interceptions, since the antiquated legislation on the issue, unchanged since 1926, allows the Governor to delegate this power to any civil servant. All they are required to do is act in the vaguely-defined 'public interest'. Set against this total lack of information, the Law Reform Commission's proposals are relatively modest.

In a report to be published later this month, the commission recommends all telephone taps should be authorised by a judge, and their number published annually. There is no suggestion such interceptions should be scaled down, or anything else done which would make it more difficult to use this as an aid to fighting corruption and other crimes.

They simply seek to subject telephone tapping to the judicial process and inject a minimal degree of public scrutiny. Both are steps which would do much to boost public confidence and bring Hong Kong more in line with practices in other modern societies.

Despite the commission's efforts, it is unlikely the Government will move swiftly to implement such straightforward proposals. It has a poor track record on previous Law Reform Commission recommendations, with some taking almost a decade to become law. Nor will officials be happy about ceding any power to the judiciary.

So the best hope for seeing these confidence-boosting measures swiftly enacted lies with the Democratic Party's threat to do so through a private member's bill, if there is no sign of official action by next month. One can hope that this will shame the Government into action. If it does not, the bill deserves all-party support and a swift passage into law. No one is suggesting phone tapping should be prohibited. But, as the territory is moving towards a mature and sophisticated society, the time is long overdue for updating the law, so as to make any abuses - now and beyond 1997 - more difficult.