Eastern Express, August 30, 1994

Urgent reminder of press freedom review for Patten


By Martin Lee

Last night, the Governor, Chris Patten, returned to Hong Kong after a five-week vacation. Sadly, the Hong Kong he returns to is one with worse prospects for press freedom than when he left.

Just months after the sentencing of the Hong Kong journalist Xi Yang, Hong Kong people got yet another reminder of Beijing・s intolerance for public discussion, when the local entrepreneur and publisher Jimmy Lai decided to air some colourful views about the Chinese Premier, Li Peng, in his magazine, Next.

Chinese officials apparently took exception to Lai・s description of Peng as, among other things, a :son of a turtle・s egg with zero IQ;, and shut down the Beijing branch of his store, Giordano.

Since Chinese government officials routinely issue scathing attacks on democratically elected Legco members, Jimmy Lai・s own colloquial Cantonese insults should not have been anything out of the ordinary. But for Hong Kong people, this case once again raises concern about the fate of press freedom in Hong Kong and introduces the likely prospect that Beijing could use existing colonial press laws to shut down Lai・s magazine, as well as any other media critical of the Chinese government after 1997.

It is now more than two years since the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) first approached Patten and asked him to give urgent attention to the problem of draconian laws restricting press freedom. Since then, journalists and lawyers from around the world, as well as many international groups, have called on him to take swift action.

Many of the colonial statutes now on Hong Kong・s books date from the late 1800s or early 1900s and are similar to laws from India, Singapore, Malaysia or other British colonial territories. Though infrequently used, the purpose of the laws was to keep the local population in line and to ensure British rule of Hong Kong would continue. Anyone with other ideas V self-government or criticising the colonial rulers for instance V could quickly be shut up or locked up. Clearly, such repressive and anachronistic statutes have absolutely no place in the free Hong Kong of today.

The Governor promised to undertake, and has undertaken, a review of 27 of these laws. And yet, thus far amendments to only three laws regarding telecommunications have been made, with amendments to two further laws, the Summary Offences Ordinance and the Public Order Ordinance, in committee stage in Legco.

Despite the urgency to amend these laws before 1997, the Governor has repeatedly broken his own deadlines for correcting the statutes. Particularly distressing are continual delays in the review of security-related laws such as the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, the Official Secrets Act and the Crimes Ordinance. According to a November 1993 government summary, review of the laws was supposed to be finished early this year.

After much HKJA and community criticism about the slow pace of reform, Patten and his administration promised a faster pace. The journalist Cliff Bale, the chairman of the HKJA press freedom committee, said: :The Government has already busted through several self imposed deadlines on amending these laws and I imagine they will bust through a few more deadlines before this work is done.;

But with two-and-a-half legislation sessions remaining before the handover in 1997, time is clearly running out. A closer look at just one of these statutes shows just what the HKJA is worried about.

If, after 1997, Lai decided to criticise the Chinese Premier, or call him rude names, these colonial-era laws could be used to punish Lai severely. The Crimes Ordinance, dealing with sedition, reads: :A seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the Kgovernment of Hong KongK.;

Through such vague and subjective laws the present V and future V sovereign has carte blanche to restrict the press in any way it sees fit. Virtually any criticism, even constructive criticism or warning of the consequences of bad government policies, could be construed to be bringing the Government into contempt.

Punishment is imprisonment and it is no defence to prove the criticism is justified. In deed, it could be argued that the more justified the criticism of the Government, the worse for the defendant, as :disaffection excited; will be greater. Whatever trust we put in the integrity of Hong Kong・s judiciary, judges must apply the law, and if the laws censor the press, even the best judge would have to rule as the law dictates.

Hong Kong・s free society and free markets will be irreparably harmed if these leftover laws are used to stifle dissent and to punish reporters and publishers who fail to toe the Beijing line.

In 1994, because of Hong Kong・s free press and free society, Chinese leaders could not stop Lai from publishing his opinions, so Beijing used economic pressure in an attempt to shut him up. In 1997, if the colonial laws restricting press freedom stay on the books, it will probably be a different story: Beijing will have no need for the indirect step of targeting a Giordano store, when there are laws like the Crimes Ordinance that would allow them to punish Lai directly.

Patten is presumably not going to censor Eastern Express for publishing this article, or try to punish me personally for drawing attention to his foot-dragging in reforming repressive colonial laws.

But unless Patten can guarantee that the laws he leaves behind will not be used for such a purpose after 1997, he must rid Hong Kong・s statute books of these repressive vestiges of colonialism without any further excuses or delay.

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