Call for tough law to protect info access

Local | Phoenix Un 7 Dec 2018

The Law Reform Commission has recommended legislation to ensure government disclosure of requested information, and to criminalize any attempt to destroy documents in order to hide them from the public.

The right of the public to access government information is currently protected under the Code of Access to Information, applicable to all government bureaus and departments and two public organizations - the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority.

But under this current code, civil servants will only be subjected to disciplinary action, such as warnings for dereliction in records management.

The commission's subcommittee on access to information issued yesterday a public consultation paper on reforming the mechanism and recommended legislation to ensure statutory backing for the current Bill of Rights Article 16 on freedom of access to information.

"It should be an offense to alter, erase, destroy or conceal records with intent to prevent disclosure of records or information," the paper said.

Subcommittee chairman Russell Coleman, a senior counsel, said the proposed law was not a panacea based on the experience of other jurisdictions as it did not increase public trust in the government, but it will enhance transparency.

The subcommittee also suggested that the gradual expansion of the number of bodies applicable to the regime initially applicable to the list of organizations covered under the Ombudsman Ordinance should be adopted.

They include government departments and statutory public bodies with administrative powers and functions.

The current code has a list of exempted subjects free from disclosure, and the law will divide the list into two: absolute exemption and qualified exemption.

The duration of exemption will be 30 years as practiced currently. If any department finds a document too sensitive to allow access to it after the duration, it has to provide good reasons for barring access, and it has to review the record again every five years.

Absolute exemption will include 12 categories, including court records, defense and security, immigration and law enforcement issues.

Asked whether politically sensitive subjects, such as the use of tear gas during the Occupy Movement and the 1967 Riots will be covered by the exemption, Coleman said there will be a process of review and appeal.

"We are not concerned with political sensitivity. We may be concerned about matters of sensitivity, but our consultation paper does not intend to identify any stance," Coleman said.

Separately, a subcommittee on an archives law, another body under the Law Reform Commission, has presented the case for drawing up an archives law.

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