Relatives of the people who perished in Hong Kong’s deadliest maritime disaster in more than half a century have expressed anger and helplessness after being told that an official internal report into the tragedy is to remain under wraps due to privacy concerns.

The internal report into the 2012 Lamma ferry crash – in which 39 people died – could shed new light on why the tragedy happened. But on Tuesday, more than nine years after the probe was completed, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said it was “not appropriate” to make the findings public because it contained ” a lot of personal data.” It is despite earlier government vows to publish the results of the investigation.

Carrie Lam
Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on December 7, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“It has been the government’s view that the internal investigation involves a lot of personal data,” Lam said at her weekly morning press conference, adding that large amounts of information would need to be redacted to protect personal privacy.

The dead – which included eight children – drowned on October 1 eight years ago when their ferry capsized after colliding with a boat off Lamma Island. The speed at which the vessel sank raised questions about the ferry company’s potential negligence and mishandling behind the incident.

Since then, families of the victims have fought for the Transport and Housing Bureau’s extensive report, which looked into the possible causes of the tragedy, to be disclosed.

An in-depth report by Stand News, published on Monday, brought renewed focus to the uphill battle of the victims’ families in finding closure. It featured an interview with Leung Suk-ling, whose brother – then 23 – died in the crash.

In March of this year, Leung submitted a request to the Judiciary for her brother’s death investigation report. After months of waiting, she obtained a 2,200-page document – independent from the THB report – containing damning testimonies that exposed the poor accountability of those who may have had a role to play in the tragedy.

Lamma Island ferry collision
The Lamma Island ferry collision.

“I met with the victim’s families,” said Lam, who was Hong Kong’s number two official at the time and announced the government’s agreement to set up a commission of inquiry into the incident. “I understand the feelings of the victim’s families, but after all, Hong Kong is a place with rule of law. So if all the legal processes are done… we must respect it.”

‘Waiting all this while’

In a phone interview with HKFP Tuesday, Leung said that she and family members of the tragedy’s victims were angered by Lam’s comment.

“We’ve heard this reply [about privacy] so many times from different government departments,” Leung said. “The privacy ordinance is important, but 39 lives are not important? 39 families are not important? The public’s right to know is not important?”

hkkf ferry
The HKKF’s ferry after the crash in 2012. Photo: Wikicommons.

Four people involved in the tragedy – the captain of the ferry, the captain of the boat it collided with, a Marine Department assistant director and a Marine Department ship inspector – were jailed over the crash.

Earlier, when legal proceedings were still underway, Leung said she and the family members did not want to urge the release of the investigative report so as not to affect the verdict. But they had been waiting “all this while,” she added, and last year, the Department of Justice said no further prosecutions would be made.

Going back on their word

Lam’s comment, and the remarks of other officials who have declined to make the report public, represent a back peddle in the government’s follow-up work after the tragedy.

Lamma Island ferry collision commemoration
A mourner commemorating the Lamma ferry collision tragedy on October 1, 2018.

In 2014, the then Secretary of Transport of Housing, Anthony Cheung, said that the investigation cannot be released due to ongoing court cases. But when the time comes, the report “cannot not be made public,” according to Ming Pao.

Leung Chun-ying, who was chief executive of Hong Kong at the time of the crash, pledged that the government would address any instances of maladministration or human error.

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.