Policy U-turns need not always be frowned upon. When decisions are feared to infringe values and principles widely held in the community, there is every reason for a rethink. In a welcome change, officials have decided to shelve a contentious law restricting public access to personal details of company directors, amid growing concerns that such a provision may have compromised press freedom and legitimate business activities. The about-face deserves the utmost public support.
At the centre of controversy was the plan, under a clause attached to the Companies Ordinance passed in July, that would have allowed company directors to withhold their home addresses and full identity card numbers from Companies Registry entries. Members of the public and the media were to be denied the right to inspect any entry unless the subject of that entry authorised them to do so. The provision, which lawmakers were to have approved in May, was a step to enhance privacy protection. The change went unquestioned until early this year, when journalists voiced fears that such a restriction might prevent them from investigating malpractices. Unionists and professionals feared it might stop workers chasing delinquent bosses to recover unpaid wages and block businesses from verifying a client's status.
The government has rightly put the clause on hold until consensus can be reached on several complex issues. Given the political sensitivity involved, such consensus should have been reached during scrutiny of the bill last year. It has to be asked why lawmakers and officials failed to spot the problems.
How much detail should be made public requires careful consideration. Valid issues have been raised by the government for further discussion, such as how to define the scope of the media if journalists are to be exempt from such provisions.
Hong Kong prides itself on being one of the few regions in Asia with press freedom and a free flow of information. Company searches by journalists have proved to be a useful tool to track down illicit deals.