The security chief’s suggestion that the city’s leading press group could make public its members’ information may be in violation of the Privacy Ordinance, the head of Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said on Wednesday.

Ronson Chan, chair of the association, was responding to “doubts” from Secretary for Security Chris Tang over the HKJA’s professionalism and alleged political bias.

Chris Tang
Secretary for Security Chris Tang meeting the press outside the Legislative Council chamber on September 15, 2021. Photo: RTHK, via video screenshot.

Tang spoke to the press outside the Legislative Council chamber saying that he was “not making any allegation,” and that he was “just cast[ing] doubt,” a day after a front-page interview with Tang was published in the city’s Beijing-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper.

“[T]he doubt is not just from me, I think it’s from a large number of the community, they have the same doubt about the association, that is the reason why I raised it during an interview with media,” said Tang, without specifying who the critics were.

In the interview, the secretary accused the press group of “breaching professional ethics” by backing the idea that “everyone is a journalist.” He pointed to the composition of the HKJA’s executive committee and questioned the union’s representativeness.

Tang said on Wednesday that HKJA could publicise its list of members and the organisations they work for after “leaving out personal information” in order to “dispel doubts.”

In response, Chan said that the HKJA collected the information for the purposes of handling association affairs, making relevant data public without the prior consent of its members would be in violation of the Privacy Ordinance.

In a statement responding to Tang, the association also called his logic “confusing.”

“This association also hope that the secretary can understand that the media organisations of which members are working for, are also a part of its ‘personal information,” the statement read. “This association really cannot guess how [we] can publicise ‘which media outlet’ our members are from while ‘leaving out personal information’.”

The head of HKJA also said that, since the association is registered in the Registry of Trade Unions, the government already has access to the list of members and the group’s accounts.

“I don’t understand why Secretary Tang skipped all of his colleagues in the Labour and Welfare Bureau and the Labour Department to ask for accountability from the HKJA, asking us to hand in this-and-that,” said Chan.

press freedom
Photo: HKFP.

The current HKJA executive committee includes journalists from outlets such as Ming Pao, SCMP, HKFP, RTHK, Stand News and Now TV – a list Tang referred to as “certain media,” in his interview.

Right of reporting

The secretary again questioned the HKJA’s alleged political bias, and claimed that the association supported the idea that every person has the right to report. Tang, once more, brought up case of a student reporter who was accosted and detained by police in 2020.

“In my understanding, a professional reporter should be professionally trained and tested like you all reporters here, [a professional reporter] should have some professional beliefs, some values, as well as some professional conduct,” said Tang.

Ronson Chan
Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Ronson Chan. Photo: Stand News, via video screenshot.

Chan said in response that the notion of “every person can be a reporter” was first brought up by the secretary, who was the then-police chief. Chan said the HKJA supported people’s right to report as those were rights protected by law.

“We respect and obey the law, Article 27 of the Basic Law states that Hong Kong residents enjoy press freedom,” said Chan. “And established with the same status as the Basic Law, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes that citizens have the right to freedom of expression.”

“It is under these two reasons that we conclude that citizens’ recording on the streets and publishing it is legal and a right protected by the Basic Law,” said Chan, adding that Tang agreed when he was the head of the police force that citizens have such rights.

‘Not’ political pressure

When asked if he was pressuring the HKJA, Tang said it would be “unfair to say that every word [he] said was putting pressure.”

Hong Kong Journalists Association. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

“I’m just saying that’s in my heart, I don’t think it is putting pressure, as a bureau chief, I have a responsibility to speak my mind on societal situations,” said Tang.

When asked if he would apologise for making false claims about the association, the secretary said that – as a professional group – the HKJA accept questions.

“If you don’t even have the forbearance to let people question and raise scepticisms, I am a bit disappointed,” said Tang.

“We do have forbearance,” said Chan. “Yesterday the secretary used false information to attack the HKJA in an interview, we won’t cause fuss about it, but the secretary – as a politically appointed official – used incorrect information and numbers to air some wrong information to the public, I think he should explain to the public.”

Foreign entity accusations

Chan also refuted claims that HKJA had taken money from foreign entities, and said that the operation of the association was “whiter than white.”

“We believe that – in continuing two areas of work: first, being defenders of press freedom in Hong Kong, and the second, protecting the rights of fellow journalists – we won’t be picked on,” said Chan.

Shareholder activist David Webb drew attention to the HKJA’s annual bulletin on Twitter, which listed numerous quasi-governmental bodies, corporations and establishment figures who had given financial backing to the press group at their 2019 fundraising dinner.

“The dinner is a major source of funding, and the last such dinner in 2019 included at least 7 Government-linked Table Sponsors and a who’s-who of corporate HK,” said Webb, in response to Tang’s remarks. “Practically everyone supported HKJA until the crackdown began. It was seen as good PR.”

When asked by HKFP if publishing HKJA donor or member details may be illegal, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data told HKFP that it noted Tang said personal data should be excluded from any published material: “The Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance does not apply if there is no disclosure of personal data.”

The office did not answer questions about circumstances where such disclosures would be unlawful, nor did it clarify whether unions should seek permission from members before sharing their data.

HKFP has reached out to the Security Bureau for clarification but was told to refer to the transcript of Tang’s speech outside the Legislative Council chamber.

Update 16/9: This article was updated to include comment from the Privacy Commissioner.

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.