Freedom of information: adviser goes on record

City's worldwide study 'shows withholding of data is seldom met with punishment'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:28am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 5:14am

It is common for authorities around the world to review any decisions to block the public from viewing records rather than punish overzealous officials, an adviser on law reform says.

Hong Kong is studying overseas jurisdictions as it considers whether to impose laws to regulate the government's ability to withhold information.

None of them made it a criminal offence for office-holders to deny public access unreasonably, because of "the difficulty of proving criminal intent", Law Reform Commission secretary Stephen Wong Kai-yi told the South China Morning Post.

Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin's call yesterday for legislation would create "little pressure" on the commission's ongoing work to analyse open access to data, Wong said.

Lai recommended that the government consider introducing a freedom of information law, overseen by an independent body with enforcement powers, to underpin the right of residents to view records.

The present Code on Access to Information posed obstacles when the media sought information involving public interest, the Journalists Association said.

The commission has a subcommittee chaired by Russell Coleman SC, which is to advise the government on whether to legislate. Wong said their report was expected before 2016.

Since its formation in May, the commission had looked at common law jurisdictions, territories such as Germany and mainland China, and global organisations like the World Bank and United Nations, Wong said.

"Most of them have established channels for reviewing government decisions on the disclosure of information," he said. "Some have a separate tribunal to examine the cases; others rely on the courts."

Former Government Records Service director Simon Chu Fook-keung said the commission's progress was too slow. "The laws are simple; they are nothing controversial."

Another commission subcommittee is looking at the need for an archives law, but Chu was not optimistic that the Ombudsman's call would help bring in legislation on this issue or freedom of information. "The government is afraid of these two laws as they will deal it a big blow," he said. "Its [problems] will be fully revealed."