Clause in new privacy law a threat to press freedom, journalists group says

Journalists' Association critical of newly amended privacy law, which says information that can cause psychological harm can't be released

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 3:11am

A journalists' union says a "big shadow" has been cast over the media by a clause in the newly amended privacy law - to be enacted next month. It will put reporters at risk of imprisonment if they reveal information that causes psychological harm to those it involves, the union says.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association also expressed concern about a requirement that, to defend themselves, media organisations must prove the disclosure is in the public interest.

The tightened privacy law also criminalises illegal data-transfer activities and gives more enforcement powers to the privacy commissioner. The latter was prompted by the Octopus card issuer's admission in 2010 that it had sold the personal details of more than a million customers to business partners.

Journalists' Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said investigative journalists would be vulnerable to the disclosure offence, especially when revealing details about celebrities. She said she was disappointed the government had not consulted the association about the amendment.

"It will cast a big shadow on the media industry," she said.

"It is hard to define what the public interest is. 'Psychological harm' has no objective standard either."

The new Section 64 of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance says a person is liable to a fine of HK$1 million and five years in prison if he or she discloses personal data obtained from a third party that held the data without the data user's consent.

The person also commits an offence if the disclosure causes psychological harm to the person concerned. Media would be exempted if they could show reasonable grounds that the disclosure was in the public interest.

A technical assistant to a radiologist at Queen Mary Hospital was sentenced to six months' jail in 1999 for dishonestly accessing a computer after he disclosed that then secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie had cancer. Mak fears reporters could suffer a similar fate in future.

She said the clause could have a profound impact on the industry, and will express these concerns to the commissioner.

Privacy commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang said that to avoid a legal dispute, people should consider before any disclosure whether the person involved would agree to his or her personal data being revealed.

He also said his office would investigate an incident in which police files were leaked through file-sharing software this month.