A decision by Hong Kong police not to disclose the details of where they handed out penalty tickets for breaches of coronavirus social distancing rules has been backed the Hong Kong government’s official watchdog.

A ticket of fixed penalty issued by police on Fau Tsoi Street in Yuen Long on April 21. File Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

The decision of the Office of the Ombudsman follows a complaint by HKFP that the police were unwilling to release the data amid concerns that the force may have been using Covid-19 social distancing regulations to unfairly target protesters.

In a decision released on Monday, the Ombudsman upheld an earlier move by the police to reject requests by HKFP for social distancing penalty ticket location data. The police said compiling the data would require an unreasonable amount of time due to the need to redact residential addresses, amongst other protected data.

However, the legislation governing social distancing rules are only enforceable in public places, and other government departments supplied similar data following requests by HKFP.

File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In October 2020, HKFP submitted a request to the police for data on penalty tickets issued to individuals who allegedly violated restrictions on Covid-19 social gatherings, or a rule made wearing masks compulsory in public places.

In place since April and July last year, respectively, the anti-epidemic rules limit the number of people congregating in public places, and require masks to be worn while an individual is in public.

Protesters were repeatedly handed penalty tickets for violating social gathering limits last year.

The police rejected HKFP‘s request about two weeks later, citing an exemption under the city’s Code of Access that it would take an unreasonable amount of department resources to process the data requested.

A man receives a ticket of fixed penalty for breaking the coronavirus gathering ban. File Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

HKFP then resubmitted a request that reduced the period for records to two weeks, but police upheld the decision, stating: “Because a large amount of fixed-fine penalty tickets’ location information include complete private residential addresses, and part of the fine tickets are undergoing legal proceedings; removing these cases require a large amount of resources under the department.”

The Prevention and Control of Disease (Prohibition on Group Gathering) Regulation is only enforceable at a public place, defined as “a place to which the public or a section of the public may or are permitted to have access from time to time, whether by payment or otherwise.”

‘Unsubstantiated’

On Monday, following an investigation, the Ombudsman responded to HKFP‘s complaint and upheld the earlier police position.

“The department accepts police’s explanation… it also looked in detail at the amount of resources and time required to identify and confirm addresses which are residences or private places,” the Ombudsman’s response read. “The complaint is unsubstantiated.”

File Photo: Kevin Cheng/United Social Press.

The decision cited police as saying that some private places might be considered public under certain circumstances and that some addresses registered on penalty tickets “might be private residences.” Over the period requested, 181 of the 925 addresses “might be private residences,” the Ombudsman quoted the police as saying.

Similar data requests were made to all government departments empowered to enforce the anti-epidemic measures by handing out penalty tickets, such as the Housing Authority, Home Affairs Department, and the Food, Environment and Health Bureau.

All except the police supplied the records with complete lists of addresses as recorded on penalty tickets issued to people deemed to have violated the mask and social gathering rules.

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.