Journalists must be allowed unfettered access to the Companies Registry’s records
Privacy concerns are legitimate but restrictions on the free flow of information could do a great deal more harm to Hong Kong in the long run
Hong Kong’s credibility as an international finance centre depends more than ever on transparency of markets , a free flow of information and a level playing field. With closer links between Hong Kong and mainland markets and the city’s role as an offshore yuan centre, these remain things that not only set us apart, but are critical to the perception of Hong Kong as a transparent gateway to the mainland’s opaque markets and a counter-balance to a controlled media. These principles may not be under threat here. But officials must be vigilant against any creeping encroachment. There is reason for concern, therefore, about the Companies Registry’s latest proposals to regulate access to its online register on privacy grounds.
This follows the withdrawal of a government proposal three years ago to amend the Companies Ordinance to allow directors and secretaries to hide their home addresses and part of their Hong Kong identity card numbers in the Companies Registry. It sparked an outcry from journalists, who pointed out that such a restriction might inhibit them from investigating malpractices, and fears from unionists and professionals that it might make it harder to pursue delinquent bosses for unpaid wages and block businesses trying to verify a client’s status. Company searches by journalists have proved a useful tool in uncovering illicit deals.
The latest proposals have drawn a strong reaction from journalists, researchers and academics. They require those seeking information from the registry to affirm they will use it only for stated reasons among an arbitrary list of options involving dealings with companies or persons, none of which include reporting purposes, and potentially expose them to legal liability for any other use. The registry now says one of the options could cover the collection of information for the purposes of news reporting. Privacy Commissioner Stephen Wong Kai-yi says there is no need for journalists to be overly worried since news gathering activities were exempted in the privacy law.
The journalists’ association is taking legal advice. Wong’s predecessor, Allan Chiang Yam-wang, put forward the original proposal – at the request of the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies – because he said uncontrolled access might cause harm. Restrictions on the free flow of information, or red tape that might inhibit it, could do a great deal more harm to Hong Kong in the long run. The government’s concern with protection of privacy is understandable, but it shouldn’t unduly hinder legitimate professional inquiry by journalists and others.