Pressing issue still on the record

Editorial | Mary Ma 19 Nov 2020

The Hong Kong Journalists Association may have called off its march to protest the arrest and prosecution of an RTHK journalist in relation to a documentary investigating the hair-raising Yuen Long attack in July last year, but the controversy remains.

At the center of the issue is a long-standing tool that has allowed investigative journalists to look up useful leads on public records.

However, with little public notice, the Transport Department changed the terms that, until recently, had allowed the media to look up vehicle registration information by removing the box indicating "other purposes" from the form that the media was required to fill out.

That option no longer exists.

This, purportedly, is why RTHK producer Choy Yuk-ling - also known by the name Bao Choy - was arrested and charged. It came after information obtained from record searches was used in a well-received RTHK production that probed the mob attack on passengers at Yuen Long MTR station on that notorious night of July 21, 2019.

Choy faces two charges alleging that she made false statements when conducting vehicle registration searches.

Due to privacy concerns, there has always been a debate about how far personal information on official registers should be made available to the public.

Despite Choy's prosecution and the ban on the HKJA's protest, the debate is still alive - and it boils down to the tricky question of where to strike the balance.

Apparently, the government has not yet found a standard approach to the question in response to the concern that had previously been aired by the privacy commissioner.

While the Transport Department has slapped a ban that is disproportionately broad, its peers at the company registry have not followed suit.

It's a probable case of negligence on the part of the Transport Department, which has failed to find a suitable balance between the freedom of the press - that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pledged to respect - and privacy concerns.

Lam has referred the matter to Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Secretary Erick Tsang Kwok-wai to follow up. While a reversal of the Transport Department's controversial ban is necessary, it is vital to understand that it is always in the public interest to give the media access to information on public records. Many award-winning news reports in the past would have been impossible if the journalists had been denied access to even basic information.

The ban on media access is totally undesirable and any decision to reverse it should be retroactive.

It raised many eyebrows last week when the Appeal Board on Public Meetings and Processions passed the buck to Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung.

This was after it overturned a police ban on the HKJA protest that would have been limited to media professionals and journalism students, with a cap of 1,000 participants.

How ironic that the board insisted the green light would be required from Cheung after lifting the ban.

Within hours, Cheung refused to give the go-ahead, citing pandemic social distancing restrictions.

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