April 13: A History of Chinese in America
22 March 2010
March 29: Screening — Last Train Home
25 March 2010

Freedom of Information in Hong Kong

Chan Pui-king, an honorary lecturer at the JMSC, is, like many investigative journalists, in the business of gathering information.

Chan Pui-king, an honorary lecturer at the JMSC, is, like many investigative journalists, in the business of gathering information.

The problem that Chan encounters, like many of her her peers, is that government departments don’t always like to release the information she’s after.

Chan Pui King

Chan Pui-king

Chan’s latest investigation has been into why, when the Code on Access to Information in Hong Kong is celebrating its 15th year in effect, it’s still so hard to get hold of certain facts and statistics from the powers that be.

Up to two thousand requests are made a year for information.

Most of these go to the Immigration Department, Housing Department, Inland Revenue Department, Student Financial Assistance Agency and the Hong Kong Police Force.

“After doing this investigation, I am amazed at not only the slow response of the government departments on meeting the demands of the public for information but also at how active the general public are in seeking information.

“The government has to address this to make the code more user friendly, to publicise what people are eligible to ask for and how to ask, and to make public information more accessible.

“The more the people understand what the government is doing the more the public will trust the government.”

The code is not a law

Since March 1995, the public has been able to ask the government for information under this code. However, Hong Kong does not have Freedom of Information legislation, so, as the code is not a law, transparency in government varies from department to department. In January this year, the Ombudsman reported on the use and misuse of the code and found it wanting.

There have been some high profile cases where the code has been tested. The Hong Kong-based Chinese language newspaper, Apple Daily, asked the Food, Environment and Health Department to release the melamine levels in food samples it had tested in 2008. The department denied the request, saying the information would confuse the public and cause unnecessary doubts about food safety. After an eight- month wrangle, the ombudsman made the government department hand over the information.

Fu King Wa

Fu King-wa

Another example is the research done by Fu King-wa, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, and a research assistant professor at the JMSC.

Fu asked the MTR Corporation for figures on the number of suicides and attempted suicides at MTR stations without screen doors in 2006.

When they rejected his claim he asked the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau and was again turned down. In January 2007 the ombudsman ruled that they should hand over the information, but it took until late 2008 until he finally got hold of the data.

People who want more freedom of information, such as Fu, Chan, other journalists and lawmakers are urging the government to legislate to enshrine this freedom in law. They say this would promote open and accountable government and ensure a stronger democracy.

FreedomInfo.org, a website that promotes freedom of information, quotes Emily Lau Wai-hing, a legislator, former journalist and vice-chairman of the Democratic Party as saying:

“What we have now has no teeth. I urge anyone who has been refused access to information to report, so we (the legislature) can follow up on this issue. Other countries in the region all have such laws now; it’s about time we pushed forward too.”

The wesbite also reports the reply from the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau about freedom of information legislation:

“Experience so far demonstrates that the Code on Access to Information provides an effective framework for the public to access a wide range of information held by the government.  We have no plan to enact legislation on freedom of information.  The Ombudsman has recently made a number of recommendations for more effective administration of the Code.  The government attaches great importance to the observations and recommendations.  We will work with bureaux and departments to ensure appropriate follow up actions on the various recommendations.”