The government has said that “the right of public access to information will not be affected” after journalists complained about new arrangements for searching the online Companies Registry.

The new policy, announced on Sunday, requires anyone searching the database to declare a reason for doing so, leaving journalists worried about legal risks as there is no option for news reporting.

Hong Kong Journalist Association. File Photo: Apple Daily.

The registry said in a press release published on Tuesday that “the new arrangement was introduced to ensure proper use of personal data obtained from the Companies Register via the Companies Registry’s electronic search services.” Concerns about the abuse of personal particulars regarding company directors were raised in a privacy commissioner’s report published last year.

Legal concerns

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said on Tuesday that they “cannot agree” with the new policies.

“Company registration information is public information, the new arrangements will add legal risks to those in working in news and to the public, raising the bar for accessing public information, greatly reducing protection for the public. We request that the Companies Registry rescind the statement,” it said.

It asked the government to clarify whether there were legal consequences if the reasons for search were discovered to be inconsistent with what was stated. It also asked how the new statement reflected the the exemptions for news reporting as stated in the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

The options available on the Companies Registry website leave few options for journalists. Photo: Gov HK.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong (FCC) also said on Monday that it was concerned with the new policy.

“We call on the government to affirm that journalism in the public interest is a purpose for which public information at the registry should be available,” it said.

However, the government said in a press release that it was not necessary to pick among the first six options, which are located on section A, and that searchers could simply pick from section B of the list.

“Among the nine options, the scope of the seventh option covers any search to ascertain the particulars of the company, its directors or other officers, or its former directors (if any). This option can cover the collection of information for the purpose of news reporting activities,” the government said.

HKFP and other media outlets have used information from the Companies Registry to build stories such as those related to the leaked Panama Papers.

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Chantal Yuen

Chantal Yuen is a Hong Kong journalist interested in issues dealing with religion and immigration. She majored in German and minored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton University.