Sometimes the interesting thing, as Sherlock Holmes points out in “The Silver Blaze,” is that the watchdog did not bark. Members of the public may well wonder why the media have failed to probe some questions of enduring interest:
- Who ordered the tear gas that sparked the Occupy movement?
- Why hasn’t the Inland Revenue Department asked former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to pay tax on the money he received from UGL?
- Which government official should take responsibility for the problems with the Shatin-Central link?
The problem is that, without an access to information law, reporters are shackled and helpless in probing issues of this kind, which involve decisions taken behind closed doors and out of public view.
After more than 20 years of campaigning by many civil groups, the Law Reform Commission has finally proposed the introduction of such a law. Yet, this is a faulty proposal that will render future investigations toothless. This is why:
1. It says an officer can refuse to entertain any information request if he or she believes it will take more than 15 hours to assemble an answer.
2. There is no independent information commission to promote and monitor the implementation of the law. Neither has the commission proposed a tribunal to review rejected requests and complaints. The review power will remain with the Office of the Ombudsman, who will be empowered to issue enforcement notes. No penalty for refusal to implement such a note is mentioned.
3. The Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary and Attorney General can overrule the Ombudsman’s decision on certain areas of information. Judicial review will be the only available redress. Those areas are defence, security, inter-government affairs, Executive Council proceedings, management of public services and audit functions.
4. More exemptions are proposed. Instead of the 16 under the current voluntary information regime, the commission has suggested 12 absolute exemptions and 11 qualified exemptions subject to a public interest test. This list is much longer than those in Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
5. The legislation will cover only the 86 public bodies under the Ombudsman Ordinance. This leaves out many bodies spending public funds and exercising public functions. Among them are the MTRC, the Airport Authority and the universities, as well as some 300 advisory committees.
The proposed legislation is clearly inadequate and ineffective as a way to protect our right to information.
A petition has been raised here to urge the commission to propose a genuine freedom of information law. We invite our readers, and all who support press freedom, to sign.
Members of the public can also send feedback directly:
- To: Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong, Access to Information Law Sub-committee, 4/F, East Wing, Justice Place, 18 Low Albert Road, Central, Hong Kong
- Or: [email protected]