The head of the privacy watchdog says the government's move to abandon the introduction of an anti-stalking law after 14 years of debate is a "disappointing" setback that will leave victims without much-needed protection.
A law that made stalking a criminal offence was long overdue as existing data privacy laws were not enough to protect those suffering at the hands of stalkers, privacy commissioner Allan Chiang Yam-wang told the South China Morning Post yesterday.
The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said in a paper to lawmakers on Tuesday that: "The administration is of the view that there are no favourable conditions for us to pursue the matter further."
The idea was put forward by the Law Reform Commission in 2000, but officials had failed to identify a way of legislating that had majority support from the public, the paper said. Lawmakers will debate the matter next week, after which the idea is expected to be put to bed.
But Chiang said stalking was on the rise, a "symptom" of the lack of legislation, and that new technology would compound the problem.
"It is disappointing," he said. "[Stalking] is a problem in society that will only get more serious as technology advances … legislation is the best way to solve this."
Chiang said there was no point waiting for "favourable conditions" as it would then be too late to reverse the trend.
"It's like putting out a fire," he said. "Should we try to solve the problem now or wait for it to get so serious in the future that we reach a point of no return?"
And Chiang said data privacy laws did not provide adequate legal protection for stalking victims, even if the activities of stalkers did constitute crimes.
"Right now we don't have a law criminalising stalking, but that doesn't mean stalking is legal," he said. "We can now only take action under other related laws … sometimes it can work, sometimes it doesn't happen. This is not fair to victims."
The idea of a stalking law has been criticised by human rights and media groups, who feared it would hinder newsgathering.
But Astrid Chan Tsz-ching, executive secretary of the Performing Artistes Guild, said the law would have protected musicians and actors from the intrusion of the paparazzi. "We have been calling for stalking to be criminalised for years," Chan said. "Performers are not the only ones who could benefit … anyone - from politicians to business professionals to students - can fall victim to stalking."
Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, however, welcomed the decision.
"Imagine what the law could mean for press freedom," said Mo, a former journalist. "If a group of reporters are waiting for a subject, police can arrive and ask them to disperse as they have the enforcement power."
Professor Simon Young Ngai-man, of the University of Hong Kong's law faculty, said legislation was needed, but that introducing such a law would be difficult when trust in the government was low.