Jockey Club gag rules choke basic rights

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 June, 2003, 12:00am

I HAVE TO wonder whether some of the people who fear gag orders from the Article 23 legislation currently before the Legislative Council could not have found a better target for their protests yesterday.

In our Sport section we carried a report that the Jockey Club has fined leading trainer Ivan Allan $100,000 for 'unfounded and unjustified' public comments during the Cheers Hong Kong Isosorbide inquiry. He was done under club rules against discrediting and prejudicing the good name of horseracing.

The circumstances, you may recall, were that Mr Allan was about to be done for illegal substances ingested by a horse under his care only to find that this illegal substance had come from a horse shampoo that had been cleared by the Jockey Club itself.

You can fully understand why he would be irate in the circumstances and he was. He made a few choices and entirely fitting comments about it and what rendered these remarks even more appropriate was that this howler should have elicited immediate and full apologies from the club but did not.

Instead, Mr Allan was hit with a $100,000 fine for breaching Rule 155(3) - acting in a manner prejudicial to the integrity, proper conduct or good reputation of racing - and Rule 155(24) - behaviour or conduct which might discredit horseracing or bring the club or any activity under its management into disrepute.

What strikes me here is that the club should be careful about using words like 'the good reputation' of horseracing. You can as easily describe what it does as a social evil that preys on the poor and brings numerous people misery through an addiction they have acquired with the club's complicity.

Let me say immediately here that I think this is no reason for banning it. If people wish to gamble then that is their business and an even greater social evil would be to take away their liberty to do so, although you may note that the club is all for taking that liberty from them in forms of gambling it does not control.

But surely the words 'good reputation' are not ones that you would normally use of the racetrack. There has always been more than just a whiff of the disreputable and tawdry to horseracing. Choose your words with greater care, sirs.

More than that, can you imagine someone being fined $100,000 after the Article 23 legislation passes on the grounds that he or she brought the government of Hong Kong into disrepute by saying some angry words in public about an undoubted miscarriage of justice for which the government was responsible?

I know some people will say that this is exactly what new sedition laws will allow the government to do. Perhaps they are right, although I very much doubt it, but this still would only be what it could conceivably do. Can you actually see the government demanding such a person be punished with the full weight of the law?

It seems a mighty long stretch of the possible to me and, if it ever happened, the outcry would be enormous. Why do we not hear that same outcry when one of the oldest institutions of Hong Kong does exactly this?

The Jockey Club can, of course, protest that it is a private members club and can set such rules for its members as it wishes. Yes it can, but then I am still utterly baffled that it would use words like 'good reputation' to justify doing something that can only damage its reputation in the eyes of the public.

Even then to have such rules as 155(3) and 155(24) seems mighty at odds with the 21st century in a society that values civil liberties enough to make enormous and widespread protest about lesser restrictions on freedom of speech in Article 23.

These sorts of gag orders stick in the craw in more ways than one. If the club insists on them let us make sure that we disassociate Hong Kong's good name from this relic of colonial practices.

Can these people not see that any (many, actually) faults the club may have can only grow worse if people involved with it on a close day-to-day basis are not permitted to criticise it?

Do we really now want to permit an institution such as this to be responsible for football betting in Hong Kong? Do we really wish to protect it from the encroachments of Internet betting and make criminals of people who prefer to stake their money on bets not run by the club?

Where are all you Article 23 protesters? This is a far more egregious affront to civil liberties.

reputation' to justify something that can only damage its reputation'