Demonstrators fill Hong Kong's financial district. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)
Demonstrators fill Hong Kong's financial district. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

In Hong Kong law, privacy may trump public interest

Tens of thousands of residents demonstrated on the streets of Hong Kong on Monday, the 16th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. The protests have become an annual rite, but the demonstrators’ demands were quite specific this year. They wanted the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and they called for direct elections. These demonstrators look around and see eroding freedoms and what one commentator, Emily Lau, called “a rule of law in a precarious state.” Journalists are uneasy as well. Vague and potentially onerous aspects of recently passed privacy legislation could put them at risk of harsh punishment.

Provisions of the city’s privacy law that went into effect April 1 could subject journalists to five years in jail or fines up to HK$1 million (US$129,000) if they reveal information that “causes psychological harm” or “causes loss.” The law also gives targets of investigative reporting the right to “request to access [the] personal data” collected by journalists. Journalists may mount a defense that they are reporting in the public interest, but that key aspect of the law seems vague.

When asked to clarify the definition of public interest in late June, Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data Allan Chiang told reporters outside an information seminar for news executives: “There is no definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. It is up to judges to review complaints on a case-by-case basis.”  

That ambiguity and the law’s otherwise broad restrictions have “cast a shadow on the media industry,” Hong Kong Journalists Association Chairwoman Mak Yin-ting told CPJ. “The definition of public interest is too vague. Reporters may now be forced to disclose even unpublished details before they’re ready to go to press with them. No one is helped by this law.”

Timothy Hamlett, professor of journalism and media law at Hong Kong Baptist University, told CPJ that “this is a good example of a well-intentioned law, which has been drafted so badly that it will have catastrophic consequences. The aim was to curb reporting on the private lives of celebrities. But the law is framed so vaguely that many media organizations will probably give up investigative reporting altogether as it is too dangerous.”

When China regained control of Hong Kong in 1997, the former British colony was granted a degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” framework. As a result, the city has been a haven for newspapers, books, documentaries and other publications on China that would otherwise be censored on the mainland.

But threats to press freedom are accumulating. In the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s 2012 survey of journalists working in Hong Kong, 79 percent believed that self-censorship has risen since 2005, and 36 percent said that they or their supervisors practice self-censorship, mostly by playing down reports that might anger the central government, their advertisers, or company owners. Intentionally or not, the recent privacy legislation fits into that pattern of dissuasion.

[Reporting from Hong Kong]