Balancing privacy and press freedom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 January, 2012, 12:00am


Mobile phones and the internet have long widened the scope for stalking. If this form of harassment poses a bigger problem now than a decade ago, the various technological developments would be a contributing factor. For all of that time the government has been in possession of a report from the Law Reform Commission proposing that stalking be made a criminal offence. Officials have finally acted on it by seeking the public's views on a law providing for fines and imprisonment for offenders.

This reflects a record of inaction on commission reports, too many of which are gathering dust. Some, though, have been implemented to plug legal loopholes and reflect the times and changing community values. The LRC considers reform only of laws that are referred to it by the secretary for justice or the chief justice. It remains the government's prerogative to decide whether and when to adopt its recommendations. But officials should seriously consider the commission's request for a preliminary response to its reports within six months and a public response within a year. That said, changes to the law need to be considered carefully to see that they achieve their stated aim and do not have unintended effects.

The proposed anti-stalking law could be a case in point. It may be time the law gave more protection against being followed, unwanted or abusive communication, verbal and physical harassment, and vandalism. But concerns have been raised that the proposed law has the potential to restrict press freedom by obstructing media attention. The Hong Kong Journalists Association also says the inclusion of harassment by more than one person could hamper members' work, or even cover a reporter and photographer on the same assignment. The government says the media's concerns could be met by a defence that conduct is reasonable under the circumstances.

This really involves striking a balance between privacy and press freedom. The LRC has published several reports calling for new laws to better protect privacy, including an independent body to monitor the media. These have, so far, not been acted on by the government because of well-founded concerns in the community that they may result in the curbing of press freedom.

To be sure, tabloid-style newspapers and magazines have been responsible from time to time for breaches of ethics and invasions of privacy. But there is a consensus that legislation affecting the whole industry is not to be contemplated lightly. A law that could potentially open the back door to such curbs, and perhaps afford the complainant anonymity, also raises concerns. More explicit safeguards for press freedom should be considered.