Journalists should have strong public interest grounds for publishing material that would contravene proposed anti-subversion legislation, the secretary for justice warned yesterday. Citing the Watergate scandal in the US in 1972, Elsie Leung Oi-sie said the publication of unauthorised or sensitive information would contravene the proposed law unless an acceptable defence could be produced. Speaking at a Newspaper Society luncheon, Miss Leung sought to reassure journalists that freedom of the press would be protected by a proposed law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, but unwittingly stirred controversy. She was asked about the case of Ming Pao reporter Xi Yang, who in 1994 was jailed for stealing state secrets on the mainland after obtaining exclusive information from a Bank of China source. Miss Leung said Xi had refused to reveal his sources to protect them and that the case had fallen under the category of stolen or unauthorised information. She later sought to clarify her remarks, saying: 'Xi Yang's case was not handled by Hong Kong courts. I'm not saying that will happen in Hong Kong. I am not saying that it will be considered as theft if you refuse to disclose a source of information. It will be handled in accordance with Hong Kong law. 'Under the common law tradition, we have enough cases for judges to consider whether specific information [has] caused a damaging impact . . . they will not just listen to what the mainland courts say about whether the disclosure of information is damaging.' Miss Leung said that public interest was a defence in disclosure of confidential information by the media. 'You need to have strong public interest grounds to do so in some cases such as the Watergate scandal. But people should think carefully if they consider it is their duty as journalists to publish some information at the risk of violation of law.' Hong Kong Journalists Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said she was far from reassured. '[Miss Leung]'s understanding towards journalists' work is terrible and this could cause enormous damage to the ability of media in monitoring the government,' she said. 'Xi Yang's case had nothing to do with protection of sources of information and was about the Chinese government's claims it caused damaging effects.' Ms Mak said Miss Leung's first comments about Xi's protection of his sources being a kind of theft were damaging despite the clarification. Ms Mak urged the government to enshrine public interest as a legal defence in the drafting of any laws on official secrets. The Department of Justice later clarified that unauthorised access was not an offence under the Official Secrets Ordinance and theft would be strictly defined at a high level. Permanent Secretary for Security Timothy Tong Hin-ming said after the luncheon that journalists needed to follow three guidelines to avoid unlawful disclosure of information. 'The first is the means of obtaining the information . . . if a hacker hacks into the government's information centre to obtain classified information and secondly, knows it is protected information, and thirdly discloses it knowing it would be damaging - that is unlawful disclosure,' he said.