Robert Leger, SPJ president-elect and convention chair, 417-836-1113, email@example.com
Dan Kubiske, Co-Chair of SPJ’s International Journalism Committee, firstname.lastname@example.org
HONG KONG -- The Society of Professional Journalists joined with Hong Kong journalists this week to promote the importance of freedom-of-information laws in maintaining an open and honest society.
"It helps hold government more accountable to give citizens power to pry information that perhaps the government might not want them to have because it is embarrassing to them,” SPJ President-Elect Robert Leger told a Hong Kong audience on Aug. 6.
Leger was a guest on BackChat, a radio talk show on RTHK in Hong Kong, discussing freedom of information laws. He joined the program from his home in Missouri, where he is editorial page editor of the Springfield News-Leader.
Hong Kong has no freedom of information law, but recent actions by the government -- from contracts with multinational companies to proposed revisions in the stock exchange rules -- have renewed calls for such a law.
Instead of a law, the government has a Code of Access, which is handled in an administrative manner by each government department. The code was initially designed as legislation to be proposed at a time when the British still ruled Hong Kong. It was rejected by the British governor. Subsequent changes in the power of the legislature since the handover to China in 1997 make a legislative initiative unlikely.
Joining Leger on the panel were Hong Kong journalist Francis Moriarty and former legislator Christine Loh. Both had been involved in drawing up the proposed code under the British administration.
Asked to react to abuses of the law, Leger said the benefits of an open society far surpass the abuses that do take place. “My neighbor can go down to the county court house and see how much I am paying in taxes,” he explained. “I don’t really like that but I can also go down there and make sure the mayor or governor are not getting special treatment. The abuses that go with any open government are far more outweighed by the accountability that you have on the folks in power.”
Of particular interest to the Hong Kong audience was how a freedom of information act would help get information about contracts signed between the Hong Kong government and the Walt Disney Co. to set up a Disneyland in Hong Kong.
Loh said the fact the Hong Kong government has not made terms of the contract public confirms what she called the government’s attitude of not releasing information. The government says the contract is being kept private at Disney’s request.
Asked about similar deals in the Untied States, Leger noted that some proprietary information shared by private companies with the government might be exempt from disclosure laws, but contracts would be made public.
“The government is supposedly offering something tangible to Disneyland. … The people of Hong Kong ought to be allowed to know what their government is doing to bring this theme park to Hong Kong,” Leger said. He noted the exact terms of the contract, which caused a renewed interest in freedom of information law, is exactly what FOI laws are designed to expose. “In the United States under the FOI acts there would be no question the information would be handed over,” he said.
Leger summed up the importance of FOI laws to keep an eye on governments. “Slowly, slowly it does help clean up the act and keep government honest,” he said.
Moriarty, who is also the chairman of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club Press Freedom Committee in Hong Kong, said he was delighted to have had Leger’s participation. He was especially pleased to have Leger explain how the FOI laws work in the United States and how such laws could be applied in Hong Kong.
An archive of the program can be found at http://www.rthk.org.hk/rthk/radio3/backchat/20020806.html
This is the second time SPJ has participated in a trans-Pacific exchange of views with Hong Kong. The first took place at the last SPJ national convention, on Oct. 6, 2001. About 300 journalists at the convention in Seattle discussed the issue of self-censorship with more than a dozen Hong Kong journalists in the RTHK studios via a live satellite connection.
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.