A chance to balance rights and freedoms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

The government acknowledges that there is deep division within the community over whether Hong Kong needs tough measures to protect people from invasion of privacy by the media. The issue was brought to a head last year by the publication, in the Chinese-language magazine Easy Finder, of covertly taken pictures showing Twins pop star Gillian Chung Yan-tung changing her clothes backstage at a concert.

The understandably strong public reaction led to mounting pressure for new laws to curb excessive media intrusion into individual privacy. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen promised to consider them.

The decision to send officials overseas to study how other countries have tried to strike a balance between freedom of the press and the right to privacy is to be welcomed. Along with the promise of extensive consultation, it rules out a populist push to bring in laws that may not be in Hong Kong's best interests, without leaving the government looking as if it is not responsive to public concerns.

Easy Finder was guilty of an unacceptable breach of Chung's privacy and also of professional ethics. But it was far from the worst case of its kind. The real target of moves to restrict the media is Hong Kong's tabloid-style newspapers and magazines generally. In an effort to be competitive in a tough market, they have from time to time seriously breached ethics and abused privacy.

The greatest caution should be exercised before imposing new restrictions on all the media. That is not to diminish the importance of protecting privacy. But, as a community, we should be wary of moves to reinforce it by controlling the press. They raise the question of just where we are headed.

The freedom of the press in Hong Kong under 'one country, two systems' has lost none of its fundamental importance. And this remains a city where there is a need to be particularly vigilant with regard to potential threats to freedom of expression. Therefore, it is important to explore other avenues for remedies for breaches of privacy.

Attempts have been made to grapple with this problem in many parts of the world with varying standards of press freedom. In Hong Kong, the Law Reform Commission has published several well-intentioned reports calling for new laws to protect privacy. Proposals include forming an independent statutory body to monitor the media, and provision for the victims of the more serious types of intrusion to seek compensation through the courts.

The government has, wisely, not acted on these proposals because of community concerns that they may result in curbs on press freedom. Sweeping legislation that imposes new restrictions on the whole industry is not a step to be taken lightly. It involves striking a balance between two fundamental rights - privacy and press freedom. While safeguards for press freedom can be included, it would be a difficult and potentially dangerous exercise.

There may be room within the existing system to make it easier for publications responsible for grave breaches of privacy to be punished. It will be interesting to see the outcome if Chung goes ahead with a civil action in the courts for breach of confidence.

In Britain, supermodel Naomi Campbell succeeded with such a claim after a newspaper published photographs of her attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. This was a remedy in common law for a problem that the Law Reform Commission believes should be tackled by legislation.

A government source is right to say that it is a very sensitive issue that has to be handled with great care. Consultations are promised with stakeholders and the public. This is an opportunity to safeguard both the rights and the freedoms fundamental to democracy.