Regarding the enforcement of the Code on Access to Information, the Ombudsman made suggestions to improve on its implementation. The Hong Kong Journalists Association strongly believes that it is time for the government to enact legislation to ensure the implementation of the people’s right to know, rather than just improving the code which is full of flaws.
The HKJA had urged the then government under British rule to enact legislation to protect people’s right to access information. The government rejected our request and came up with an administrative code. However, without making it binding in law, the code can be ignored and citizens cannot take any case to court even though their requests are legitimate and yet are unreasonably rejected. It has been the case that the government had refused to reveal a report judged by the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data that should be made public.
Moreover, exemptions allowed by the Code are too wide to protect people’s right to know. According to the Code, there are sixteen categories of information which can be exempted from disclosure. To name a few: disclosure of information of which would inhibit the frankness and candour of discussion within the government may be exempted from disclosure; information that is premature to disclose. With such exemptions in place, almost all information that the government does not want to make public will be withheld. As such, the people’s right to know is limited to the discretion of the government. The HKJA considers it a contradiction of the open policy claimed by the government.
The negligence of the government in promoting the Code demonstrates the cynical attitude of the government in its open policy. The HKJA have reasons to believe that the government is using the Code to dodge the need to enact a law on access to information. By not doing anything, the government can maintain its secretive way of policy making and administration. Such secretive ways of administration came to surface in a survey conducted by the HKJA in early 2007. According to that survey, it was commonly held by news workers that the government was less open than the government in 1997.
It is commonly known to the world that transparency can prevent officials from abuse of power and corruption, and serves as the basis for good governance. Therefore, open societies are the trend in the international community. Even the United Kingdom, which refused to enact such a law in Hong Kong at the request of HKJA, enacted Freedom of Information Act in the year 2000. There they have clearly stated that it is a general right to have access to information by public authorities and there are only minimal exemptions herein.
Moreover, the Chinese government passed the ‘The Provisions on the Disclosure of Government Information’ in 2008. Accordingly, all levels of governments must respond to the citizens who request information from the government. Although the law has been criticized for being too wide in the scope of exemptions, at least there is a law to protect people’s right to know.
On the other hand, Hong Kong has been proud of its free flow of information as its core value, but the Hong Kong government still refuses to consider enacting a law to ensure the enjoyment of the right to access information. Such intransigence is highly disappointing.
HKJA believes also that enhancing the education of officials of the Code is far from satisfactory. We reiterate our call on the government to enact access to information legislation with clear principles on maximum disclosure of documents and information and minimal exemption so as to protect the people’s right to know.
Hong Kong Journalists Association