【明報專訊】WITH THE PASSAGE of the Companies Bill by the Legislative Council in July last year, the government is aiming at getting the subsidiary legislation passed by July this year. The enforcement of the new Companies Ordinance will mean that information about company directors can only be obtained by public officials, public institutions, liquidators, receivers, and trustees in bankruptcy for the performance of their duties, while the public and the media can obtain no more than their correspondence addresses (instead of residential addresses) and parts of their identity card numbers.
It was not until last week, when the government submitted the relevant documents to the Legislative Council, that the majority of the public learned about the amended details, and a huge outcry was raised. The media, academics, and the Hong Kong Journalists Association are vocal in their opposition to the revision of the ordinance, pointing out that it will restrict public access to information, and that looking into company filings has always been an important tool for investigative news reporting and can help ferret out possible conflicts of interest on the part of high-ranking officials and councillors. Representatives from trade unions and small and medium enterprises also point out that, to recover debts or collect unpaid wages, it is often necessary for creditors and employees to know the residential addresses of company directors. The government, however, asserts that the public had been consulted well before the revision.
It is true that the government did conduct a consultation exercise on the proposed revision from December 2009 to March 2010. However, the consultation process was somewhat questionable.
First, the government started its consultation in December 2009, and received 68 submissions from the public, none of which, however, was from the media. According to Hong Kong Journalists Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting, the government never approached the association for comments. The media’s concerns about the amendment have clearly gone unheeded. Moreover, there has been no in-depth public discussion of the matter.
Second, the government declares that most of the submissions (46 altogether) received are in favour of not disclosing company directors’ residential addresses. However, these submissions are mostly from listed companies (14), chambers of commerce (4), and private persons (16). None of them represent the major chambers of small and medium business, and the submissions from three important professional bodies (the Association of Banks, the Bar Association, and the Institute of Certified Public Accountants) are unequivocally against the revision. The public can hardly agree with the government’s decision to turn a deaf ear to the informed opinions of these professional bodies.
Third, in defence of its position, the government repeatedly says that “reference has been made to foreign experience". However, it is not proper to draw on foreign experience when conditions in Hong Kong are different from those in foreign countries.
Finally, in its December 2009 consultation paper, the government indicated clearly that it was inclined to maintain the current system. However, in its August 2010 consultation conclusions, the government made a complete volte-face, which the public cannot but find suspicious.
Restricting access to information about company directors will not only curtail press freedom, but will also have far-reaching effects on Hong Kong’s business environment and its position as a financial centre with respect to the prevention of money laundering. The government should therefore take the initiative and propose putting off the implementation of the new ordinance. Hong Kong can learn from the established practices in foreign countries, such as Australia, where company directors’ residential addresses remain open to public scrutiny unless a company is able to prove that its information has been abused or its directors have been harassed. This would help safeguard public interests.
政府上周向立法會提交文件，大多數市民此時才對修訂的細節有所掌握，嘩然之聲四起。傳媒學者及香港記者協會紛紛反對此項修改，認為條例削弱市民知情 權，並指查冊一向是記者偵查報道的重要工具，有助揭露高官或議員的利益衝突；工會及中小企代表亦表明，債主及僱員往往要靠董事住址才能有效追討欠債欠薪。 政府則辯稱早已諮詢公眾。
subsidiary﹕serving to aid or supplement; auxiliary; subordinate in function
ferret﹕discover information or to find somebody/something by searching thoroughly, asking a lot of questions, etc
volte-face﹕a complete change of opinion or plan
launder﹕move money that has been obtained illegally into foreign bank accounts or legal businesses so that it is difficult for people to know where the money came from