Time to call a spade a spade

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 1997, 12:00am

Euphemism is a desirable art. It saves people from the embarrassment or discomfort of being confronted with an offensive or hurtful remark or situation.

However, when it comes to drafting a law, there is no reason why we should not call a spade a spade.

The Chief Executive's Office's proposed amendments to the Public Order Ordinance and the Societies Ordinance are objectionable on civil libertarian grounds.

Not only that. Some new terms proposed in the amendments are offensive because they are an assault on the clarity of language.

Under the proposal, the Commissioner of Police will issue a 'Notice of No Objection' or 'Notice of Objection' after he is notified of an intention to hold a public procession.

In essence, this means anyone wanting to hold a demonstration will have to get a 'permit' or 'licence' from the police.

However, instead of calling the piece of approval document a 'permit' or 'licence', which is what it is, the mind-boggling terms 'Notice of No Objection' and 'Notice of Objection' are used.

This obfuscating tactic makes it difficult for critics to say clearly that a licensing system for public procession is being re-introduced.

The cunning ploy must be condemned, because it is a self-deceptive move which, if unchecked, will lead us all to shy away from the truth.

What is going to come next? Are we going to call a liquor licence a 'certificate of no objection to selling alcoholic beverages'? The Special Administrative Region government must not go down a dangerous path of self-deception. What also needs to be checked is a move towards re-interpreting social stability as meaning no demonstrations.

At present, even though organisers of a public procession need only notify the police, in fact the police can impose conditions in the interest of public safety or public order.

The proposed amendments increase the number of statutory conditions to include 'the protection of the rights and freedom of others', a phrase lifted from article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

As 'evidence' of a need to do so, the consultative document says 'the public were concerned when protesters intruded into a foreign consulate against international protocol; when demonstrators blocked the traffic in the heart of the business centre to voice their grievances; and when petitioners besiege commercial premises disrupting the work of the offices there.' In fact, these unwelcome incidents can be adequately dealt with by existing law.

By citing the ICCPR and some demonstrations which went wrong, the consultation paper seems to suggest that the covenant sanctions the banning of protests outside foreign consulates, in business districts or inside commercial buildings.

This clearly is not the case.

All over the world, foreign consulates are often the targets of demonstrations. In Hong Kong, they are virtually all housed in multi-storey commercial buildings.

But this should only mean reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of demonstrations may be imposed.

No conditions should be imposed as to defeat the purpose of an act of free speech.

What is the point of being allowed to demonstrate outside a consulate only at 11pm when no one is inside?