Proposed changes to hide company directors and secretaries' personal details - home addresses and full ID numbers - from the public are an affront to press freedom, the city's journalist groups said yesterday.
The changes to the Companies Registry, slated to start early next year, will also allow currently publicly available personal details to be removed for just HK$55, hampering scrutiny of those in positions of power, the proposal's critics said.
The proposed changes by the Financial Services and Treasury Bureau - recently added to the rewrite of the Companies Ordinance - follow a series of investigative reports into Chinese officials' hidden wealth by major news organisations last year.
The proposal's supporters welcomed the changes, which they say protect personal data.
But the Hong Kong Journalists Association said that the changes were "unquestionably a retrogressive development".
"It does not just hurt the media, it damages the city's reputation of having a free flow of information," said association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting. "It is irresponsible and I … wonder why the government would do this."
A meeting Mak had last night with other groups including an alliance of journalism professors ended with the groups agreeing to launch a signature campaign against the amendments.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club in Hong Kong also voiced its opposition, with its president Douglas Wong writing to call on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to withdraw the changes.
"Company searches are an important tool and source of information for investigative journalism and we regret that we were not invited to provide feedback on this change during a public consultation at the end of last year," Wong's letter said.
The move was contrary to what Leung said in a speech to club members last month, Wong said. "He talked about the values of the free media in Hong Kong," he said.
Meanwhile, Mike Wong Ming-wai, chief executive officer of the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies which lobbied for the changes, said they were long overdue.
"It's about time, because this is the trend that people want to observe, not only with company directors," he said yesterday. "People are confused if they think the identity of directors are concealed, because they can still look at who is behind a company."
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data also welcomed the proposed changes as "personal data privacy will be enhanced by removing unrestricted public access". Instead of a home address, the new law would allow directors to list a "correspondence address", which must not be a post office box number.
If the proposal is pushed through, only a select few - such as company members, a liquidator, trustee, or public body - will be able to view the information. Insurance brokers, a clearing house or investor compensation company can also ask for access.
The public can request to view the information as well - but only with written permission from the person whose private data they are seeking.
Last June, Bloomberg published a wide-ranging expose on the expansive wealth accumulated in recent years by the relatives of incoming president Xi Jinping . In October, The New York Times reported the billions held by family members of Premier Wen Jiabao . Both reports were based largely on publicly available documents and financial records.