Freedom of information denied is freedom denied

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

The free flow of information is at the heart of Hong Kong's success. Without a transparent government, media freedom and free speech, Hong Kong would wither and die. Ensuring that this remains the case is essential to our future growth and well-being. Being a services-based city without the benefit of natural resources, little manufacturing and a population that can be readily bested for labour costs by the mainland, our development depends on information about what we have being freely available to lawmakers, investors, customers, researchers and citizens.

Yet there is no law guaranteeing freedom of information in Hong Kong.

As an international financial centre, having such legislation is imperative. The freedom of the media would be ensured and citizens would have the right to access information held by public authorities, subject to well-defined exemptions. This is essential for a transparent and accountable government.

Government policies cannot be properly debated without the relevant information. The community is best served only through being given the most pertinent choices and this is achieved through lawmakers having the appropriate knowledge.

Such a law is also essential to our economic future. If our financial and services sectors are to further prosper and grow, the information investors and customers need has to be available on request.

The implications of the lack of such a law is highlighted by our report today on the frustrations of a university researcher who is unable to examine whether railway platform screen doors are effective in preventing suicides because government transport officials will not give him the data he needs. This is a public safety issue and lives could be saved through the work.

Yet the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau is refusing to hand over the statistics on privacy grounds. Worse, it is ignoring an order by the Ombudsman to comply based on an investigation that determined there was no legitimate reason why the information should not be released.

That the Ombudsman's orders do not have teeth is an issue that the government needs to urgently rectify. This is the one body that is supposed to ensure government transparency and its being shunned violates that principle.

The researcher was seeking the data under the Code on Access to Information, which applies to all government departments but is not legally binding. Since being introduced in 1995, 2 per cent of requests - 425 - were rejected up to last year.

In January 2005, the Legislative Council unanimously passed a motion urging the government to introduce freedom of information legislation. Authorities have ignored their call.

Hong Kong has to move forward. Governments the world over have introduced freedom of information laws in the interests of political and commercial advancement. While our government declines to follow suit, we will fall behind in these areas and falter competitively. As the suicide study case reveals, our community well-being could also suffer.