The Office of the Ombudsman has said it received a record high number of complaints related to access to information last year, with government departments often citing inappropriate reasons in their refusals.

In total, the government watchdog received 4,862 complaints in 2016/17 – 382 fewer than the last year, according to its annual report. Investigations into 74 per cent of the cases had been completed, with 85 complaints relating to access to information – a new high.

File Photo: Ombudsman.

Whilst there is no freedom of information and archives law in Hong Kong, there is an official Code on Access to Information. The public can cite it when asking for information, but the Code does not have any legal effect, nor does it apply to all public organisations.

Of the complaint cases, 72 were against government departments and public bodies covered by the code.

Ombudsman Connie Lau said the main reasons complaints were filed included delayed responses; a refusal to explain why information was not given; and misunderstandings of the code.

Failings on the part of government departments were found in 32 cases, with 16 involving unjustifiable refusals to release information to the public.

Ombudsman Connie Lau
Ombudsman Connie Lau. Photo: GovHK.

The report said that one of the commonly, but often inappropriately cited, reasons for refusal was confidentiality of third-party information. Other reasons for refusal included the suggestion that enquiries involved internal documents, or that the release of documents may affect departmental operations.

“Maybe government departments do not have enough knowledge, or have an incorrect understanding about the Code – they should reveal information as much as they can,” Lau said.

Lau also said that the rise in the number of complaints may be related to an increase in the public’s knowledge of civil rights. She urged the government to enact a freedom of information and archives law as soon as possible.

“I have to express my disappointment over the government’s slow progress in implementing our recommendations made in 2014 for legislation regarding freedom of information and public records,” she wrote in the report.

“The public has already been waiting too long for a legal safeguard of what amounts to their basic right of access to information held by government departments/public bodies.”

Food and Environmental Hygiene Department
Cleaning workers of Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. File Photo: GovHK.

The other 13 complaints were about requests for information made to public bodies not covered by the code – failings were found in four of them.

During the year, the Ombudsman received 476 complaints against the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department – the highest number among all departments. 456 complaints were filed against the Housing Department, and 216 were filed against the Buildings Department.

The two departments also ranked in the top among the highest number of complaints in 2015/16.

Assistant Ombudsman Tony Ma said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Housing Department are often directly in touch with the public, who may file complaints if they believe their cases are not being handled well enough.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.