Journalists and press freedom advocates in Hong Kong say new legal requirements for accessing two public databases in the Chinese territory could stifle investigative reporting and chill press freedoms.
The Land Registry and the Companies Registry both enacted changes on November 1 that require users to supply more personal information when conducting data searches, such as their Hong Kong identity card number and the reason for the search.
Users must also agree to limitations on how the information can be used and acknowledge that their personal data may be shared with law enforcement agencies.
Authorities say the changes are needed to protect private data and ensure information is used for legal purposes.
But journalists fear the requirements may be used against them and could result in newsrooms being more cautious. Many cited recent arrests under Hong Kong’s national security law and Basic Law, including a producer convicted in April after searching a public vehicle database.
Neither the Companies Registry nor the Land Registry responded to VOA’s requests for comment.
Concerns were amplified after producer Bao Choy was found guilty on two counts of making false statements to obtain public data, under Hong Kong’s Basic Law earlier this year.
The then-producer at the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) was working on "Hong Kong Connection,” a documentary that looked at the police response to an attack by suspected gang members against pro-democracy protesters in the city's Yuen Long district in July 2019.
As part of her research, Choy was tracking down license plate registration from cars seen on video transporting suspected attackers.
But a court in April said Choy had failed to declare that her search for public information had a journalistic purpose.
Choy argued that she selected “other traffic and transport related issues” because the form had no option for “journalism.”
She was fined $770 and when her RTHK contract expired in January it was not renewed.
The journalist, who is currently in the United States, previously told VOA that authorities are using Hong Kong’s laws "to suppress press freedom."
The database changes come a few months after the Companies Registry allowed for some details on directors to be removed, citing the risk of doxing— a tactic in which attackers use information such as addresses to harass individuals.
Keith Richburg, president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, described the latest changes as another blow to press freedom, and questioned their purpose. The press club has been calling on the government to maintain public access.
“To actually close off the information to people with legitimate reasons, that’s making it more difficult for people to do their job,” Richburg told VOA.
"I would argue the press has a legitimate interest and same interest as accountants or lawyers or government officials to access this information because press freedom is mentioned in the Basic Law.”
Three Hong Kong-based journalists who cover news and politics said the changes could impact their work. All requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal under the national security law.
One former investigative reporter said the new restrictions could make journalists think twice about whether it’s worth putting themselves at risk for a story.
“You’re not knowing whether or not for sure it’s going to be illegal or falling into a gray area. I would say maybe there are reporters who drop stories because it’s too cumbersome to do a record search,” the journalist said.
The reporter added that journalists are already having reservations about searching for vehicle license information after Choy’s case.
“It just places even more pressure on editors to not do anything that might cause unwanted risk or attention to themselves,” the journalist added.
A second reporter, who works for an international outlet, said Choy’s case is a warning to others.
“A major concern would be whether the government can find my search offensive and arrest me for invading others’ privacy, even if it's for the public interest,” the reporter said.
And a journalist working for a local media outlet said the regulations could affect those who want to “dig a little deeper.”
“It is bad for journalists and the free flow of information. I’ll surely think twice about using these databases if I’m required to provide my personal information,” the reporter said.
Public databases are often a vital part of in-depth coverage of corruption or in uncovering the wealth of senior Chinese leaders.
Despite the new obstacles, Richburg, a veteran journalist at outlets including The Washington Post, and director of journalism and media studies at the University of Hong Kong, believes that journalists will become more determined to find ways to access information.
“Ordinarily we would tell [students] these are accessible public records. So, in the future, we may have to tell them these records may be more difficult to get. This is all so new we haven’t actually gotten to that point yet,” he said.
“It may become more difficult, may take a bit longer, and may have to rely on more sources, opposed to actual public documents,” Richburg added. “But I have no doubt it’s still going to go on, accountability reporting is still going to be there.”
The new requirements add to what correspondents say is a declining environment for media.
The annual survey by the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club found that 84% of respondents believe conditions have changed for the worse since the national security law came into effect.
China’s Foreign Ministry slammed the survey, warning the club against “meddling” in Hong Kong affairs.
But press freedom has been under scrutiny since the national security law was enacted last year in an effort to curb dissent following anti-government protests in 2019.
The law prohibits acts deemed as secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. Authorities have used it to arrest dozens of prominent pro-democracy activists and journalists, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
The pro-democracy paper Lai founded—Apple Daily—closed in June, after several executives were charged under the law for alleged foreign collusion.