Search me but how is that a privilege?

Editorial | Mary Ma 1 Apr 2021

Does it really constitute a privilege if the press is given access to personal information such as the residential address and ID number of company executives on official registry records?

Chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor certainly thinks so and is therefore planning not to allow the public - including the media - to keep having the "privilege" in a controversial proposal that will come into force next month, although access to such information was regarded as basic in the good old days of what we may like to regard as press freedom.

Seeing such access as a "privilege" is too simplistic.

While it may be the government's intention to protect the privacy of company directors and secretaries, the problem is that limiting access to important information as such doesn't offer the proper way forward.

First, it shouldn't be viewed as a privilege for the press.

Frankly, media bosses couldn't care less who is A or who is B unless there are strong prima facie reasons that are in the public interest to find out more about them - bearing in mind that it costs money, manpower and time to conduct searches.

It is not a privilege but an occupational necessity. That need is absolutely similar to other sectors like property, legal, accounting, etc. Even more than the press, these professions have to refer to Companies Registry records regularly to confirm identities in a crucial part of conducting due diligence.

What is being proposed - for only the correspondence address and partially redacted identification numbers to be shown will surely protect company directors and secretaries who want to keep personal information from public eyes - but it will also greatly hamper the legitimate duties of these professions.

The proposed restriction is clearly in danger of tilting the balance too much in favor of the individuals at the expense of the public interest.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that not only are journalists adversely affected in carrying out their duty to keep the public informed but others in different economic disciplines will also suffer, either directly or indirectly.

Needless to say, many an individual has immediately pointed out that property deals can be affected. The practice of owning a property via a company may not be as popular elsewhere, but it is rather common in Hong Kong, where owners of high-value premises are often registered companies, not individuals.

As a market critic has pointed out, it is true that it isn't in the interests of some people to know where a company executive sleeps but it is essential for them to know that he is who he says he is. A partially redacted ID number cannot lead to a conclusive confirmation of someone's identity.

Lawyers and accountants working on company deals are also obliged to go through basic due diligence and it's routine to cross-check details against Companies Registry records.

The government is going to legislate the restrictions in an "enact first and deliberate later" manner - an approach normally reserved for cases of great urgency. It behooves is to ask why there is an urgent need to change the rules for the press?

The proposed curb has many ramifications that have to be weighed carefully, and labeling it a privilege doesn't answer the need for a rational debate on a matter of pressing importance.

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