Lawmakers challenge copying ban

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2007, 12:00am

Rules governing poll materials are being interpreted too tightly, say observers

Lawmakers have called on the government to explain why it is barring the public from making copies of election-related material that it makes available for public viewing.

Copies of documents such as candidates' nomination forms, expenses and advertisements, for all elections, are kept at the Registration and Electoral Office in Wan Chai.

By law, the office is required to 'make available for inspection by any person a copy' of such documents. The office does so, but it also prohibits those inspecting the documents from taking notes on the material or making copies.

For those documents such as filed election expenses, of which the office is legally required to provide copies upon request, it will do so for 50 cents per page - but still no note-taking is allowed.

It appears the restrictions were tightened sometime last year, as reporters who covered the last chief executive election, in 2005, recalled being able to freely copy such information.

But a spokesman for the office said the rules had been in place since the office sought legal advice from the Department of Justice a few years ago.

The rules were drawn up after they were advised that 'to make available for inspection meant to examine closely', and nothing else.

But academics and lawyers say they see little basis for such an interpretation.

University of Hong Kong law professor Eric Cheung Tat-ming said he 'sees no basis for the interpretation that inspection meant you cannot jot down notes'.

One prominent lawyer, who did not wish to be named, also said the interpretation could be wrong.

'It's like if you go to a library, you can inspect reference books. You can't take them away, but nothing stops you from making copies,' the lawyer said.

Democratic Party lawmaker Sin Chung-kai said he would confront the government on the issue during a future Legislative Council question time. 'Even setting aside the legal aspect, the public expectation is that people will be allowed to look at and copy the information.

'Some information should even be made available for inspection through the internet as well. Inspection does not necessarily have to mean physical inspection. It should be technology-neutral.'

Legal sector lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, of the Civic Party, also doubted the government's interpretation. 'There shouldn't be anything secret about [such election-related material],' she said. 'That's a public document. They're not required to give you the facilities to make copies, but neither does the law prohibit [you from doing so],' she said. 'The government really owes the public an explanation.'

Journalists' Association chairwoman Serenade Woo Lai-wan said the association was very concerned.

'It affects the public as well. The issue has been reported on before, and the government is still ignoring it, so how can they claim to have any accountability?'