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The Companies Registry requires users to declare their purpose before logging in by choosing from 11 boxes, none of which directly cover media searches. Photo: Companies Registry

2 Hong Kong government databases to tighten access rules, triggering warning over threat to press freedom

  • Land Registry and Companies Registry to require users to supply more information beginning next month
  • Hong Kong Journalists Association warns move will undermine media freedoms

Two Hong Kong government databases will require users to supply more information beginning next month, prompting a warning from the city’s main journalist association that the move will undermine press freedom.

The tighter access to the Land Registry and Companies Registry, announced on Monday, takes effect on November 1 and follows similar steps over the past year to restrict access to information contained in government databases.

“The Hong Kong Journalists Association is deeply disappointed with the new arrangements,” the group said on its Facebook page.

“This is not the first time we have noticed the Companies Registry attempt to restrict access to the database, and the new measures do not ensure the rights of reporters to use it for news related work. We are concerned this change could pose unnecessary legal risks to journalists.”

The Companies Registry includes the personal information of directors of registered businesses such as addresses and identification numbers. Photo: SCMP

Previously the Land Registry only required users to input their name and phone number, but under the change they will be required to supply their identification number, declare a purpose for searching the database and confirm they will not use the information in a way that breached the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Users will not be allowed to use the data “for purposes not related to the purposes for which the records are kept and made available to the public”, the government said.

Both individuals and organisations accessing the information will also need to “acknowledge the personal information collection statement which states that the personal data provided by the searchers may be disclosed or transferred to law enforcement agencies as permitted under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance”.

Officials must rethink plan to deny access to Hong Kong’s Companies Registry

The Companies Registry, which includes the personal information of directors of registered businesses such as addresses and identification numbers, will continue to require users to state their purpose of the search in addition to entering their personal information.

Searchers will also have to confirm “information obtained should only be used for the stated purpose along prevailing practice”.

“The measures will help ensure that the data contained in these public registers are used only for the legal purposes for establishing the registers,” the notice stated.

The Companies Registry has since 2016 required members of the public to declare their purpose before logging in by choosing from 11 boxes, none of which directly cover media searches.

This is not the first time Hong Kong’s authorities have moved to restrict members of the public from accessing such records. In October 2019, the Immigration Department stopped allowing people to check marital or birth records without the authorisation of the person concerned or permission from the government.

RTHK freelance producer Bao Choy convicted and fined over charges relating to documentary

The Transport Department also amended its database providing details of vehicle ownership. Earlier versions of the online form allowed users to fill in the purpose of their search under a category listed as “other”, but the current version no longer includes that option. News reporting is not one of the other categories available.

In April, RTHK contributor Bao Choy Yuk-ling, who co-produced an episode of a documentary on the Yuen Long mob attack of July 21, 2019, was fined HK$6,000 (US$770) for making false statements under the Road Traffic Ordinance.

Choy was accused of providing a false statement as she had used the information for the purpose of reporting, instead of “other traffic and transport related matters”, the reason she gave when applying for access.

Earlier this year, the Transport Department gave private vehicle owners the option to sign up for a free service which would notify them if their details were searched, as well as give them the personal particulars of the searcher.

The government in March proposed to restrict public access to the personal information of company directors in the Companies Registry, a move which prompted backlash from the business and media sectors. The proposal seeks to limit available information to only correspondence addresses and partial ID numbers.