Journalist groups in Hong Kong called on the government to withdraw proposed law changes that would make examining the backgrounds of company directors more difficult amid concern the changes will stifle press freedom.
“This is unquestionably a retrogressive development in the free flow of information,” the Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement on its website yesterday. “The main objective of the current public inspection arrangement is to ensure that the interests of minority shareholders are protected, that is, the general interests of the public.”
The limitations were put forward by the city’s Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau and Companies Registry in November as part of a consultation document for new legislation concerning companies.
The change would keep private the residential addresses and full identification numbers of a company’s directors from the first quarter of next year. Individuals would be able to apply to have personal details blocked on historical filings.
“Company searches are an important tool and source of information for investigative journalism,” the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said in a letter to the city’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, posted on its website. “The ability of foreign correspondents and journalists to legally access information about individuals and their companies is vital to our role of reporting on issues of public interest.”
The Hong Kong Association of Banks said in an e-mailed response to questions that it “sees benefits in allowing public access to directors’ residential addresses and identity card numbers maintained at the Companies Registry.”
The association said it “hopes that the government will put forward a workable arrangement which will balance these different considerations.”
The Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau said in an e-mailed response to questions that it had sought the opinion of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data during the consultation process.
“Under the proposal, the public and the media can continue to access the correspondence addresses and half of the digits of the identification numbers which, together with the name, should allow them to identify the individual concerned,” it said. The Companies Registry didn’t immediately answer questions.
Bloomberg News last year relied on Hong Kong and Chinese identity card numbers contained in filings to chart the business relationships and assets of the families of China’s incoming president, Xi Jinping, ousted Politburo member Bo Xilai and the descendants of veteran revolutionaries, known as the Eight Immortals, who ran China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The New York Times newspaper traced assets owned by the family of outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, also with the help of Hong Kong records, according to an October article.