Message from Keith
Journalists rely on access to public data. It’s the lifeblood of investigative reporting and accountability journalism everywhere, including here in Hong Kong.
Real estate records can show whether government officials, senior police commanders or aspiring candidates for chief executive live in homes with illegal structures like rooftops or swimming pools, or occupy houses in violation of land and tenancy laws.
Company records can show whether Hong Kong’s business elite is engaged in overlapping directorships, cross-holdings and insider trading, or undermining corporate governance while failing to exercise their obligations to small shareholders.
And having access to identity card numbers is essential in Hong Kong, where many people can have the same name but all carry a unique ID number. Ascertaining who’s who is crucial for accurate reporting.
Access to open data has been essential to some of the biggest journalist scoops of recent years, including investigative reports by The New York Times and Reuters exposing some of the corporate holdings of China’s ruling Communist Party elite and their family members. And that may be precisely why the Hong Kong government is now signalling plans to make access to data far more restrictive.
Under the proposed changes, firms in the city’s Companies’ Registry will be able to block access to directors’ residential addressees and their full ID card numbers. Only a few select groups of people, like liquidators and public officers, will be able to apply for access to those hidden but important details. Notably, journalists would be left off the list of those eligible for access.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the move, saying “Journalists requesting to see what others can’t, it’s a prerogative. In Hong Kong, no one has a prerogative.”
But one of the most important jobs of journalists is to hold government accountable, to shine a light into the hidden corners that those in power would rather keep darkened. As investor and open data activist David Webb said, restricting access to data “will facilitate corruption, fraud and other crimes”.
Of course many governments, including Hong Kong’s, would rather journalists not play the accountability role, insisting that their own institutions are adequate for the job.
For example, the Hong Kong Police Force would rather all complaints about misconduct go through their internal process, or be referred to the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which has no investigative power. The IPCC has substantiated just a small fraction of public complaints filed and taken disciplinary action in far fewer.
And that’s why a brave journalist engaged in accountability reporting, Bao Choy of RTHK, now finds herself facing vindictive criminal charges for her perfectly legitimate search of vehicle records looking for evidence of triad involvement in the infamous July 21 attack at Yuen Long.
Much of Hong Kong’s success rests on its reputation as the region’s premier financial center, a place known for its impartial legal system, its solid regulatory system, business transparency and accountability. Now all of that seems at risk as the government makes it easier for corporate directors to cloak their identities and their shady deals.
Certainly there have been abuses in the past of people using personal information like residential addresses and ID card numbers to engage in “doxxing,” especially against police officers during the 2019 protests. There is always room for existing privacy laws to be tightened, and for penalties stiffened when information is abused, like for doxxing.
But allowing journalists access to public records and data is essential for reporters to do their job. Unless of course those trying to restrict access really do have something to hide.
Keith B. Richburg
Director, Journalism and Media Studies Centre