Freedom of information law the only logical step

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 February, 2009, 12:00am

The government's promise to co-operate with the Ombudsman's direct investigation into the administration of the Code on Access to Information is telling. Complaints that its officers are not complying with the provisions have been getting louder and the response is an admission of problems. Enhanced publicity and training will be undertaken and the findings of the inquiry will be studied and the recommendations considered, an officer said yesterday. This is well and good, but the flaws in the system have been obvious for too long and a much better step would be implementation of a freedom of information law.

Many governments have put such legislation in place. They do so knowing that transparency and openness are essential for growth and prosperity. Without the free flow of information, a society cannot progress; it will wither and die. The point has been sadly missed by officials who do not hand over the facts people seek.

Part one of the code says the government will make available as much information as possible. But the second part gives authorities the right to 'refuse to disclose information', and 'refuse to confirm or deny the existence of information' on a wide range of subjects. This not only causes frustration from the person making the request but raises questions about what the government is trying to hide. Trust is immediately lost.

Just 2 per cent of requests - 463 - have been denied since the code was introduced in 1995. The number is comparatively small, but in recent years there has been a sharp rise from five in 2006 to 25 last year. Why there has been such an increase is worrying. The Ombudsman's investigation is clearly necessary.

Whatever the study finds, though, will not correct the fact that authorities are not legally bound to comply with requests for information. Having such legislation in an international financial centre like Hong Kong is imperative. Media freedom would be ensured and people 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.