Improve public access to information

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 January, 2013, 2:06am


Hong Kong appears to stand out as a centre for the free flow of information in the region. But it lags behind countries that long ago enacted laws protecting public archives and access to information. The absence of legislation here means there is little control over what is kept and what is discarded by government departments. Whether people can get the information they want is also left to officials' discretion under guidelines laid down nearly two decades ago. The situation sits oddly with the government's claim that it is one of the world's most open and transparent.

Thankfully, the Ombudsman has intervened. In a welcome step, the watchdog has launched direct investigations into records management and access to information. It noted that our officials just sit on a code introduced in 1995, while freedom of information acts have since been enacted in more than 88 places. Some countries have had legislation to protect archives since the 1940s. That our government is seriously lagging behind its world counterparts is regrettable. It is even more unfortunate that the push for change came from an administration watchdog. As the Ombudsman rightly pointed out, it is necessary to review whether the public's right to access information is adequately provided for under the current regime, and whether the measures taken are in line with modern standards of open and good governance.

Until there is a law to govern the management and disposal of public archives, our history, including sensitive documents on controversial government decisions and policies, risks being wiped out by officials without public monitoring. It is disturbing that the government has dumped records equivalent to 55 times the height of the Two IFC building over the past six months. Without any legal safeguards, the public is unable to tell if the disposal is justified or not.

The government's claim to have fulfilled 98 per cent of the requests for information may well lend support to the argument that the administrative code is sufficient. But this is arguably the weakest excuse to resist legislation. If the regime is said to be working so well, going a step further to give it firm legal backing should do no harm. After all, what better way is there to protect people's right to know than by making it a statutory right in a society firmly rooted in the rule of law? Legislation on public archives and access to information is the right step to enhance transparency and accountability.