Next Digital

Media must respect right to privacy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am


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Striking a balance between freedom of the press and the right to privacy is a notion universally accepted. But the experience in Hong Kong shows this is easier said than done. Keen competition often pushes tabloid-style papers and magazines to extremes when reporting on the private lives of celebrities, sometimes at the expense of media ethics and what is allowed by law.

The landmark rulings by the privacy watchdog in connection with covert pictures of three TVB artists are, therefore, welcome. The Privacy Commissioner rightly ruled that two magazines of the Next Media Group had violated the privacy law by publishing pictures of an actor in the nude at home and a couple behaving intimately inside the flat. But the magazines argued that the artists were youngsters' idols, and whether they had lied about their love relationship is a matter of public interest. An appeal is under way.

The watchdog has given useful reference on drawing the line between privacy and public interest. First, it said celebrities are entitled to 'reasonable expectation of privacy' when they are at home. It also noted the photographs involved careful planning, referring to reporters spying into high-rise buildings with telephoto lenses. While it accepted public interest can be used as a defence, in the two cases, the photos were merely salacious, aimed at satisfying readers' prurient interest. The criteria used by the commissioner are reasonable. Hopefully, the ruling will have a positive impact in curbing media excess.

Given the vulnerable media environment in Hong Kong, fears of the ruling having a chilling effect is to be expected. But the case also underlines the importance of the media discharging its duties responsibly. Unless the disclosure of ordinarily private moments is in the public interest, the individual's right to privacy should be respected. This is particularly essential in light of the media's power and influence. Press freedom comes with great responsibility. It is important that it is not abused simply for commercial gain. Failing to do so may give the government an excuse to rein in the press.