One of the core features of Hong Kong’s legal system is that court cases are open to the public. This keeps the judges on their toes and boosts understanding of the judicial process. The principle of “open justice” is especially important in national security law cases, as the legislation imposed by Beijing is in the early stages of implementation. Developments should be subjected to public scrutiny. Most people rely on the media to keep them informed. It is, therefore, a concern that the ability of journalists to report bail proceedings – the initial battleground in security cases – is severely limited. The Criminal Procedure Ordinance imposes tight restrictions. Only six types of information can be reported, including the name of the defendants and the charges. The court can lift the restrictions if this is “in the interests of public justice”. These rules have been a thorn in my side as a reporter and editor for many years. Bail hearings are often highly newsworthy, allowing early insight into criminal cases. But most of what is said cannot be reported. Journalists have sometimes breached the restrictions and got away with it. But they need to be careful as taking a risk could result in six months’ jail. The media have, therefore, generally observed the restrictions in high-profile security cases. This means most of what has been said in the hearings sits dormant in reporters’ notebooks. The public is being denied access to important information concerning the application of the law. Last week, opposition activist Gwyneth Ho Kwai-lam withdrew her bail application when a judge refused to lift the reporting restrictions. Ho argued the public has a right to know what is said by all sides. Madam Justice Esther Toh Lye-ping rejected the application, saying she had a duty to protect “the integrity of court proceedings down the line”. Opposition activist drops bail plan after reporting restrictions bid fails Toh only allowed reporting of her ruling. She has, to her credit, often lifted the restrictions to that extent at the request of the media. This allows some understanding of the court’s reasoning, but does not present the full picture. The judiciary has also made some relevant documents available. But the approach has been inconsistent. Reporters have often been banned from even reporting the reasons for the court’s decision. On Friday, Magistrate Peter Law Tak-chuen granted a media request for all restrictions to be lifted, so that full details of a bail hearing involving five leaders of the group behind the city’s annual Tiananmen crackdown vigil could be reported. It is rare for a court to lift all restrictions, but this should be encouraged. The limitations, based on similar ones in New Zealand, were introduced on the recommendation of a 1989 Law Reform Commission report. It said the importance of media reporting must be balanced with the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The commission’s concern was that juries might be prejudiced by the reporting of bail proceedings. This is because the prosecution is allowed to use prejudicial evidence in such hearings that might not be permitted at the trial, such as a defendant’s criminal record. In light of the report, the courts should be much more willing to lift reporting restrictions if the application is made by the defence or the case to proceed without a jury. The Bill of Rights has, since 1991, reinforced a presumption that court proceedings will be open to the public. It is time for the restrictions to be reviewed. The law should be changed to allow for the free reporting of bail proceedings except in rare cases where the court orders the withholding of specific items of highly prejudicial information. A time limit is also needed for any restrictions. The law does not provide one. This means a wealth of information revealed in the security law cases can never be legally reported. The implementation of the national security law raises many important questions that need to be resolved. It is in the public interest that the principle of “open justice” is respected in these cases and the media is free to report them.