Journalists in Hong Kong may face “unnecessary legal risks” when searching for government records, a local press union has warned, after two registries announced new rules tightening public access to step up the protection of personal data privacy.

The Companies Registry and Land Registry said on Monday that they will roll out new measures requiring people to disclose their names and identification document numbers before conducting searches. They will also need to agree to a statement confirming that personal data obtained in the records will not be used in violation of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Land Registry
The Integrated Registration Information System operated by the Land Registry. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The two government registries will require searchers to sign a Personal Information Collection Statement to acknowledge that their data may be divulged or transferred to law enforcement as permitted under the privacy law.

The new rules were designed “with a view to enhancing the protection of privacy of the personal data contained in the land records and owners’ corporations records,” the government said. They will take effect next Monday and be applied to individual and organisational users of the Integrated Registration Information System, self-service terminals and service counters.

“The measures will help ensure that the data contained in these public registers are used only for the legal purposes for establishing the registers,” the Companies Registry wrote.

‘Extremely disappointing’

The latest restrictions on accessing government records came months after the authorities announced controversial changes to the city’s company law that would allow directors to conceal their identities. The Financial Services and Treasury Bureau said in June that the amendments would be imposed in three phases from August this year to December 2023.

The Companies Registry
The Companies Registry. File photo:

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) on Monday slammed the rules as “extremely disappointing,” saying it was not the first time for the authorities to tighten public access to their records.

The press group said the registries did not establish the right of journalists to obtain their documents for work purposes under the new record checks system. This could add risks to their journalistic work, the HKJA said.

“[T]his change may bring unnecessary legal risks to journalists… tightening the arrangement for record checks will harm the press freedom guaranteed to Hongkongers under the Basic Law,” the HKJA said, adding the government should offer an explanation and listen to concerns raised by the industry.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.