Law against stalking needs to balance press freedom and privacy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 3:55am

How could a proposal to introduce a law against stalking generate debate over 14 years without result? The lack of community consensus is reflected in media and entertainment circles that would normally be expected to be like-minded on human rights issues. Astrid Chan Tsz-ching, executive secretary of the Performing Artistes Guild, is disappointed that the government has told lawmakers, after a consultation, that there are no "favourable conditions" to pursue the idea, first suggested by the Law Reform Commission in 2000. She said the law would have protected musicians and actors from the paparazzi.

But opposition from journalists and media groups supported by human rights activists prevailed.

Stalking covers a wide range of things, from being followed to unwanted communication, verbal and physical harassment and vandalism. A law making it a criminal offence could inhibit press freedom by obstructing legitimate media scrutiny. Community fears about this are one reason officials took so long to put the idea out for consultation. A suggested defence of reasonable pursuit under the circumstances failed to meet media industry concerns - for example about whether investigative journalism would be considered legitimate news gathering. This left the legal position uncertain.

Tabloid newspapers and magazines have been responsible for egregious breaches of ethics and invasions of privacy. But safeguarding privacy with criminal sanctions at the expense of press freedom could be the thin end of the wedge against free speech.

That said, Privacy Commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang warned that stalking was a problem that would only get more serious as technology advanced. Other privacy laws such as data safeguards did not provide adequate legal protection for stalking victims. This will therefore not be the last attempt to criminalise it. Any law must strive harder for a balance between press freedom and privacy.