Hong Kong news outlets face litigation over sources

Hong Kong, August 9, 2013–The government’s anti-corruption agency has demanded two news outlets turn over notes and other material related to interviews they conducted with an oil executive who is under investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on the Independent Commission Against Corruption to withdraw its requests.

The news outlets, Commercial Radio Hong Kong and iSunAffairs magazine, said they received letters on Wednesday from lawyers of the agency, asking them to submit their notes from an interview with Lew Mon-hung, chairman of Pearl Oriental Oil company. The agency has also sought a court order, which is pending.

Lew has been under investigation since January by the anti-corruption agency for suspected breach of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance. News accounts have not reported further details on the accusation. In the interviews published and broadcast by the outlets, Lew said that Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s leader and chief executive, had lied about having illegal structures at his luxury homes. Leung has denied lying, but said he had been negligent and careless in his handling of the homes.

The news outlets told local journalists that they did not intend to comply with demands for notes and other unpublished materials. Lew said he has not been contacted by the agency about the interviews.

If Hong Kong’s High Court grants the court order, failure to comply without reasonable cause could subject the two news outlets to up to a year in jail and a HK$100,000 fine, according to Hong Kong legislation.

In a statement to CPJ, the anti-corruption agency said it had received advice from the Department of Justice before seeking the court order. The Department of Justice told CPJ it would not comment.

“The Independent Commission Against Corruption should explore other options before resorting to legal action to pressure media organizations to give up their notes and other material used in their reporting,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in New York. “It could set an unfortunate precedent and deter potential sources from providing information to the press, harming the press’s ability to serve as a watchdog.”

The Hong Kong Journalists Association has strongly opposed the move, arguing that it would harm public confidence in journalists, leading to a perception that media outlets would not be able to protect their sources.

Timothy Hamlett, a veteran Hong Kong journalist and professor of media law at Hong Kong Baptist University, told CPJ that the agency’s actions were puzzling and that it remained unclear if the agency would use the materials to investigate either Lew or Leung.

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