Hong Kong’s courts have stopped providing reporters with personal details of those facing trial and the police officers handling their cases, on the day the city’s leader said journalists should not enjoy “privilege”.
According to a statement from the judiciary on Wednesday, the city’s courts have begun redacting ID card numbers, addresses and dates of birth of defendants in documents accessible to journalists.
Details of officers handling cases were also concealed, with the judiciary citing the disproportionality and damage to its operation as reasons.
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The move came amid heightened concerns that the city’s press freedom could be curtailed in the wake of a recent government’s proposal to restrict public viewing of certain data in the Companies Registry. The online database is where journalists investigate corporate connections.
Addressing the topic on Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor argued that the restrictions were to prevent the “weaponisation” of personal information. “I cannot see the reason for journalists to have that privilege,” she said.
Explaining its decision, a judiciary spokesman said: “As providing personal information of a high degree of privacy may undermine the proper operation of the judiciary, or be disproportionate to the requirement of judicial transparency, the court will no longer provide the date of birth, ID card number and address of a defendant, as well as personal details of those in charge of prosecutions, starting from the 30th of this month.”
But he said the courts would continue to give the defendant’s name, charges and case details, and “try its best” to provide their age, gender, nationality and occupation.
Before the new arrangement, reporters could access this information on a charge document.
Chris Yeung Kin-hing, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said the decision was not in line “with the principle of open justice the judiciary has promised”.
He added: “We are disappointed that the judiciary, which should function independently, seems to have followed the moves by the executive authorities to impose tighter restrictions on access to court information.
“Journalists have used that information for reporting. There have been no cases of misuse of abuses. We urge the judiciary to reconsider their decision and remove the curbs on the press.”
A spokesman from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data said the city’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance prevented the use of personal data without its owner’s consent. But such disclosures could be exempted if a person, engaging in journalistic activities, had reasonable grounds to believe publishing them was in the public interest – though the information had to be collected by fair and lawful means.
Legal scholar Stuart Hargreaves, who specialises in privacy law at Chinese University, cautioned against the simplification of the matter. He suggested that the value of openness in the criminal justice system went beyond the interests of investigative reporters.
“Transparency is fundamental to the whole process,” he said. “At the same time, there is always a tension in a free society between the privacy rights of individuals in court proceedings and other countervailing interests. But the default is transparency.”
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