Self-censorship has long been identified as the biggest threat to press freedom in Hong Kong. There are certain topics—ranging from the powerful influence of property developers to human rights outrages on the mainland—that are deemed too sensitive to be reported by certain pro-establishment publications. However, there is a new threat to our city’s long-treasured free press; the government is planning to restrict access to key information about local company directors. In 2006, the government started rewriting the Companies Ordinance. The public paid very little attention to this, as it was assumed that the amendments would be largely technical. However, it has recently come to light that public access to information on company directors—including residential addresses and identity card or passport numbers—will no longer be available for public scrutiny, according to one of many subsidiary legislations. The government cited “concerns over data privacy and possible abuses” as the reason for such changes, but the amendment has sparked an outcry from investigative journalists, for whom the information is a valuable tool. The bill was passed by the Legislative Council in July 2012, but the subsidiary legislations have yet to be voted upon. Polly Peh has been working as a journalist for “Apple Daily” for seven years. In 2011, Peh and her colleagues investigated the pro-establishment camp’s landslide victory in the District Council election. One of their shocking discoveries was that 13 registered voters, with seven different surnames, were allegedly living in a flat in Mei Foo belonging to Beijing supporter Leung Ping. The team wrote a series of award-winning reports, which exposed the prevalence of vote-rigging throughout the city. “We found out the identities of the residents after checking the register of electors,” says Peh, as she recounts her experience. “My colleague became suspicious after finding out that there were so many registered voters with different surnames in one Mei Foo flat. After checking the Land Registry, we learned that the owner of the property was named Leung Ping. Fortunately, one can also check the agreement for sale and purchase, which shows the identity card number of the property owner. We then checked the Companies Registry for the name Leung Ping… and with the identity card number, we found out which companies he owned. We then checked old newspaper clips and verified that this Leung Ping is a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Maoming, Guangdong.” Peh believes that the information published on the registry is an indispensable resource for investigative journalists, and says it would have been impossible to break the vote-rigging story had the amended Companies Ordinance been implemented. Under the government’s proposal, company directors’ residential addresses will no longer be published on the Companies Registry, and they can choose to provide a service address instead. Only public authorities and regulators would be able to obtain the residential addresses of company directors. Some of the digits on their ID cards will also be hidden. “The most important task for journalists is verification, and full identification numbers are essential. We are worried that if the Registry only shares the first three numbers, we would be unable to verify the identity of people with common names, like [Secretary for Development] Paul Chan. We will never be able to be sure of their identities,” Peh adds. “[Most investigative] reports expose scandals and the like. If you cannot verify the identities of the people concerned, great harm would be inflicted upon that person if an inaccurate report were to be published.” The government frequently deploys responses to these criticisms. In a press release, Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Chan Ka-keung said that a consultation on the Corporate Registry had been undertaken in 2009, suggesting that a thorough consultation had already been completed. In 2010, the government published a report on the opinions collected during the first phase of consultation. The report stated that the majority of respondents, including corporations and individuals, are supportive of restricting access to the personal information of company directors. A closer examination of the collected papers shows that the government has skewed the consultation results. The government received a total of 164 submissions, but only 68 of the submissions responded to the question about whether the residential address and identification numbers of company directors should be published on the Corporate Registry. Most of the respondents opted to ignore the question. The government has pitched the move as a measure to safeguard personal privacy. But in the past two years, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data has only received two complaints related to the Corporate Registry. Furthermore, there has been no concrete evidence to show that identity theft is on the rise. Apart from the media sector, there are other professional bodies and labor unions that are against the restriction of company directors’ personal information—the publication of such information is an effective deterrent against commercial fraud. For example, the Hong Kong Association of Banks supports the publication of the residential addresses and identification numbers of company directors as, according to their submission to the government during the consultation process, it is an “additional money laundering check” and “enhances a sense of responsibility on the part of directors,” as they know they can be contacted by people who have complaints. Labor unions, including the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, oppose the amended law because the registry is the only way to obtain the authentic contact information of employers in case of company closures. Hong Kong’s Companies Registry is not only important to local journalists—the international media has also made use of this valuable database, especially for reporting on financial scandals on the mainland. Since anyone who wants to open a company in Hong Kong is obliged to provide their personal information, the Corporate Registry is a reliable and detailed source that helps to shed some light into the operation of mainland companies that have branches or subsidiaries in Hong Kong. Last year, the New York Times exposed the vast wealth accumulated by the outgoing prime minister Wen Jiabao’s family, while Bloomberg news published reports chronicling the business relationships and wealth of president Xi Jinping’s family—both media outlets relied on information available on Hong Kong’s Company Registry to complete the reports. The controversy surrounding the amended Companies Ordinance boils down to the dichotomy between press freedom and privacy. “Media freedom is definitely in a conflicting position with privacy,” says Mak Yin-ting, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “We must bear in mind that both media freedom and privacy are not absolute rights, and there must be a balance. But if you ask me, I would put press freedom first because its aim is to safeguard public interests.” The public, especially the media sector, has reacted strongly to the proposed law. “In the past 10 years, there has never been a new law designed to enhance media freedom. On the contrary, the government has used different ordinances and administrative means to restrict press freedom,” says Mak. “Now, the government is pushing forward laws that will limit active reporting by journalists. Journalists do not wait to be fed information... We dig out information by ourselves, and we need certain tools. But they are blocking all that now.” With so many incidents of journalists being detained and obstructed when trying to report the news, it’s easy to see why journalists and the public alike are so concerned about this law, which appears to have more sinister intentions than to merely safeguard privacy. Relying on the Registry Local journalists depend on the corporate registry to break important stories revealing shady undertakings by people in power. Here are just a few examples from the past few years. ExCo member Franklin Lam made a quick buck (2012) Executive Council member Franklin Lam pocketed more than $10 million after selling two flats in the Mid-Levels just before the government introduced a special stamp duty targeting non-residents. Lam, a former property analyst, denied that he had known anything about the government’s cooling measures. The properties were held under a company he owned. Development chief Paul Chan’s wife sublet illegal flats (2012) The media exposed that the wife of the Secretary for Development Paul Chan was leasing out illegally partitioned flats. Through the Companies Registry, it was confirmed that Chan’s wife is one of the directors of Harvest Charm Development Company, the owner of the two properties in Tai Kok Tsui and Yau Ma Tei. Chan had not declared any conflicts of interest, even though the secretary for development is responsible for clearing illegal structures and handling subdivided flats. Suspicious transactions at Conduit Road 39 (2010) In 2009, the property market heated up after a buyer paid more than $70,000 per square foot for a luxury flat in 39 Conduit Road, a real estate project owned by Henderson Land. 24 flats were sold in the first batch, but it was later discovered that six of the flats were purchased by a company owned by former DJ Samuel Tsun. In the end, all but four of the transactions were completed, leading to speculation of market-rigging. Tsun was questioned by the police over the transactions.