Press freedom in Hong Kong

Rule on disclosure of company directors' data seeks balance

Regina Ip says the sudden outrage over the legislative move to restrict access to company directors' data obscures the fact that the process has been fair and open, and is ongoing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 5:59am

Ever since the news broke last month that changes would be made to the Companies Ordinance that would make it harder for the media to obtain the personal data of company directors, the liberal media have cried foul and fired pot shots at the government for restricting media access. "Secrecy breeds corruption," the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned.

Some foreign journalists even claimed that the proposed changes were Beijing-inspired moves to clamp down on press freedom. Others charged that such restrictions would make it harder to investigate money laundering and other crimes. In sum, all who spoke are agreed that the proposed changes should be scrapped.

The furore is a classic example of how difficult it is to differentiate fact from fiction once the big guns of the media start firing.

It is important to get the facts straight. To those alarmed by the spectre of a crackdown on press freedom, fact No 1 is that the legislative amendments to the Companies Ordinance were approved by the Legislative Council last July but have not been brought into effect. Consultations are ongoing. Fact No 2 is that the proposed restriction was approved after the bills committee set up to study the Companies (Amendment) Bill 2010 had held over 40 public meetings to scrutinise the bill, including seven at which the proposal to restrict access was discussed. Only one legislator raised some mild objections. The media did not seem aware of the implications of the proposed change.

The bills committee was chaired by two accountants, one of whom, Paul Chan Mo-po, has become a minister while the other, Starry Lee Wai-king, has been elevated to the Executive Council. In addition, there were 12 other legislators from business sectors and the professions, including no fewer than five lawyers. Four of them - Albert Ho Chun-yan, James To Kun-sun, Audrey Eu Yuet-mee and Ronny Tong Ka-wah - are lawmakers from the pan-democrat camp who are supposedly champions of freedom and democracy.

Not only that, prior to the commencement of the bills procedure, the government had conducted a three-month public consultation exercise in which one section specifically sought views on the disclosure of directors' residential addresses and their identification numbers.

Views were canvassed on various overseas models, including the "Australian model" which permits a director to substitute an alternative address to his residential address for safety reasons, and the "UK model", which gives directors the option of listing a service address in place of their residential address in the public registry. The privacy/safety considerations, versus the public's right to know, were discussed in detail.

Fact No 3 is that the new law does not totally restrict public access to the personal data of directors and company secretaries. The law empowers a director or a company secretary to apply to the companies registrar to withhold his address and full identification number from public inspection. This is not unreasonable, considering that, in other parts of the world, the availability of such personal data has rendered directors and company secretaries liable to stalking, harassment and other threats to their personal safety.

It has been argued that the concealment of such personal data would make it difficult to uncover overlapping or covert directorships. Yet the recurrence of somebody's name with the same partially disclosed identification number should make it possible for the media to track down the individual concerned.

It should be noted that, throughout the process of drawing up the legislative amendments, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data was consulted. The commissioner welcomed the proposed restriction.

The support was hardly surprising, given the huge uproar which arose in the summer of 2010, when Octopus Cards Limited, a subsidiary of the MTR Corporation, was found to have sold customer data to third-party organisations without informing the customers.

To strike a balance between protecting personal data privacy and permitting public access in justifiable circumstances, the amended law permits the companies registrar to disclose "withheld information" to certain categories of applicants. The government is discussing with the relevant stakeholders the parties to be permitted such access, and it is intended that they should include shareholders, law-enforcement agencies and liquidators.

It is certainly possible, on the grounds of public interest, to allow the media access to such "withheld information", but questions have arisen regarding the definition of who should be counted as members of the media.

The public will be given plenty of opportunities to voice their views before the regulations are enacted. Before we decide, we must ask ourselves a critical question: should the media be given unrestricted access to personal data in the name of media freedom, and shouldn't you and your family members be afforded a modicum of protection before evil-doers wreak havoc with your personal data splashed in the public arena?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party