Government will not restrict access to information

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2002, 12:00am

The letter by the president of the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC), Thomas Crampton (South China Morning Post, November 20), on the government's proposals to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law contains many points which are manifestly incorrect or which misrepresent what is proposed. I wish to respond to some of them.

First, we are not introducing mainland notions of 'national security' and 'state secrets' into Hong Kong. 'National security' is already defined in Hong Kong's Societies Ordinance as 'safeguarding of the territorial integrity and the independence of the People's Republic of China'. The definition is in keeping with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the independent courts of Hong Kong will be interpreting it in accordance with the principles inherent in the covenant.

As we have explained many times, our proposals are based on the existing Official Secrets Ordinance, which protects only four categories of 'official information', namely, information relating to security and intelligence; defence; international relations, and the commission of offences and criminal investigations. Again there is no question of extending mainland definitions to Hong Kong.

The allegation of increases in the government's power to restrict the flow of information without a corresponding statutory right to access information is not supported by facts. There is certainly no proposal to restrict access to information.

Other allegations concerning additional restrictions placed on journalists are based on a misunderstanding of our proposals. We have already explained them in detail to media representatives, and would be pleased to go over the details with the FCC again if it so wishes.

The proposals regarding emergency police powers of entry and search are no different from emergency powers which a wide range of disciplined services, including the Independent Commission Against Corruption, Immigration and Customs, already have to prevent crime. Such emergency powers have been exercised from time to time to deal with a wide range of offences without any serious abuse. We would be prepared to build additional safeguards into our eventual bill to eliminate any possibility of abuse.

The offences of 'dealing with a seditious publication' and the offence of 'unauthorised possession of a seditious publication' are already included under the existing Crimes Ordinance. We have proposed to tighten the nature of the offence, not to expand the scope as the FCC seems to believe.

With the dramatic growth in transnational serious and organised crime, the extra-territorial application of domestic laws is becoming a global trend. Hong Kong permanent residents living abroad have nothing to fear unless they are involved in the commission of serious crimes undermining national security. The key question is whether the offences in question will be tightly defined to avoid abuse. We have pledged to do so repeatedly.

Finally, while I fully understand the FCC's concerns about terms like, for example, 'incitement' and 'intimidate', I wish to point out that these are terms frequently used in the common law. They embody well-established common law concepts regarding which the courts have acquired a lot of experience interpreting.

There is no question of abuse arising from wanton interpretation of such terms.


Secretary for Security