SCMP Friday, February 9, 2001
Devil's advocates of privacy
The four-storey home of wealthy and well-connected businessman Kenneth Fang Hung is burgled on the last night of March last year. His two daughters are tied up by three intruders who escape with about $400,000 in cash, luxury watches and jewellery.
The burglary is widely reported in Chinese-language newspapers. An infuriated Mr Fang, the chairman of Yeebo, a manufacturer of liquid crystal displays, and also the chairman of the Productivity Council and one of 800 members of the Election Committee which will elect the Chief Executive next year, contacts Secretary for Security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee in April to complain about the names and ages of his daughters being released by police.
Mrs Ip passes on the complaint to the police and follows it up in July and again last month.
Then, just before sunrise last Saturday morning, a brawl erupts outside the Devil's Advocate bar on Lockhart Road in Wan Chai. An expatriate policeman dressed in a dinner suit - who earlier in the evening had been attending a dinner at the nearby Police Headquarters to celebrate the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns - is smashed over the head with a bottle.
The injured off-duty officer is Michael Armstrong, assistant divisional commander for Castle Peak. He had been in the bar with three expat colleagues at the time of the disturbance.
The incident is front-page news on Sunday and throughout much of this week. Furthermore, the Consul-General of Nigeria is the father of one of the youths involved, and alleges his son was harassed by the police.
On Monday, the Police Public Relations Branch announces it will no longer release the names of suspects and victims in criminal cases. It claims that to continue to disclose personal data about crime victims may breach the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, and says it will now only disclose gender and ages.
Previously, police media officers were understood to be authorised to give reporters part of the Chinese name of an alleged offender or victim and their age, or the surname and age in the case of a foreigner.
Pressure was mounting yesterday for police chiefs to back down over the new no-names policy, and the force indicated it was likely to seek independent legal advice. A Police Public Relations Branch spokesman also insisted the new policy had "nothing to do with the assault case involving off-duty expatriate police officers in Wan Chai".
But Mrs Ip's handling of Mr Fang's complaints coupled with the announcement of the change in policy on the first working day after the Devil's Advocate incident, and the decision to press ahead before considering the views of the Privacy Commissioner (which had been sought but not received) has still led to questions being raised about the motives behind the police management's actions.
The move, which is understood to have been brought forward from a later date, was reported to have been approved by the new deputy commissioner of police (operations), Lau Yuk-kuen, after it was resisted by his predecessor, Wong Tsan-kwong. Sources said Mr Lau had taken a close interest in the Devil's Advocate incident and had ordered a "secret brief" to be prepared by the Hong Kong Island Regional Crime Unit,
A Sunday Morning Post journalist who reported on the Devil's Advocate incident says he was only able to identify Castle Peak senior officer Mr Armstrong after being given his surname and age by the Police Public Relations Branch. But officers were hesitant to release the information and he had to make repeated phone calls demanding it.
The reporter believes the new policy would have made it much much more difficult to identify the injured officer.
A police letter seeking the Privacy Commissioner's view on the proposed change was only sent out on Tuesday, January 30, and received towards the end of last week, said a spokesman. The office was only able to respond with a letter sent on Wednesday - two days after the policy-change announcement. It says, in effect, that the previous practice of releasing part of a name did not breach the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.
Privacy Commissioner Stephen Lau Ka-men said the force had only asked for a definition of personal data and did not ask if the partial release of names was permissible. "In our view, generally speaking, if the names of the person are masked [part of the name not released] it is not personal data," he said.
However, Department of Justice lawyers may hold other views, said Mr Lau. The force is understood to have consulted the department.
The controversial decision, which is being vehemently opposed by the Hong Kong Journalists' Association and pro-democracy politicians, is also meeting resistance from within the police force.
"I don't think it's a good idea; I don't see any reason to change that rule," said Mark Ford-McNicol, chairman of the Overseas Inspectors' Association.
Though he is upset with sensational coverage of the Devil's Advocate incident in some Chinese-language newspapers, Mr Ford-McNicol said he had no problem with the release of part of the expatriate officer's name. He said some press coverage of comments by Nigerian Consul-General Ebenezer Olusanmokun was unfair and prejudicial. Oluwaenia Olusanmokun, 20, was arrested with another man, 19, and both have been released on police bail.
"It gives expatriate officers a bad name. The officers who were involved with the incident can't say anything," said Mr Ford-McNicol.
The chairman of the Local Police Inspectors' Association, Tony Liu Kit-ming, said the timing of the announcement on the policy of releasing names was a "bit strange" coming so quickly after the Devil's Advocate incident. He also questioned why police force management did not wait for the response from the Privacy Commissioner before making its decision.
Glenn Schloss (
) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.