Next Digital

Playing the rights card

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 August, 2006, 12:00am


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Even though you knew he wasn't talking about you personally, it was still a strange feeling to have Jackie Chan stand just metres away and deliver a dressing down to your industry.

'Now it is an international incident ... it started from one magazine, one editor, one reporter, one covert photograph, and Hong Kong's image has been damaged,' the action movie star said to an assembly of reporters and photographers at TVB City on Monday, during a televised rally to call for greater protection of privacy rights.

At his back were about 300 other celebrities in a rare show of force and solidarity, and in front of him was a throng of about 200 reporters, photographers and cameramen from more than 50 media organisations.

Chan's denunciation was sparked by the publication of secretly taken photographs of Gillian Chung Yan-tung, one half of the popular Canto-pop group Twins, by the gossip magazine Easy Finder last week. The photographs, taken using a hidden camera backstage during a concert at the Arena of Stars in the Genting Highlands Resort in Malaysia, showed Chung without her bra while changing clothes.

In the week since its publication, Chan's voice wasn't the only one raised in outrage. Women's rights activists, legislators and other entertainment personalities all criticised Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and his Next Media group, which owns Easy Finder, for obtaining and running the photographs. Copies of the magazine sold out despite additional print runs.

Rival publications to Apple Daily, the mainstay of Mr Lai's stable of publications, ran scathing articles and editorials. The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority received a record 2,500-plus complaints about the article, which has since been categorised as class II indecent by the Obscene Articles Tribunal.

Chung initiated court proceedings against Next Media on Monday, filing a writ seeking an injunction against further publication, all copies of the photographs and unspecified damages.

Easy Finder and Mr Lai have been silent on the issue, although Apple Daily published a critical opinion article on Tuesday, saying it was a 'mistaken and highly inappropriate act to take photos of people changing clothes. Easy Finder was wrong to publish such photos'. Calls to Easy Finder were not returned.

This was not, of course, the first time secret and/or risque photographs of celebrities have been published. The most infamous, perhaps, were photographs of a naked and distressed Carina Lau Ka-ling, which were believed to have been taken in 1990 when she was allegedly kidnapped. The photographs were first published in late 2002 by the magazine Eastweek, which was then under the Emperor Group, now Chung's record company. Public pressure over those photographs led to Emperor Group closing the magazine and selling it to Sing Tao News soon afterwards.

There have been other examples over the years, and while there were allegations that some past exposes were staged, it is thought by many that this time, the Easy Finder photographs went too far. In doing so, it has refocused public attention on media ethics, freedom of the press, and privacy rights.

For some, such as TV personality Chan Pak-cheung, there is one clear culprit. 'The media wasn't like this in the 1970s and '80s,' he said at the event. 'It was in the mid-'90s, when Jimmy Lai Chee-ying brought Next Media to Hong Kong, that the bad wind for Hong Kong's morality blew in.'

Yet others, such as commentator Chip Tsao, see a more complex picture. 'This issue has become very politicised,' he said. 'Everyone is against Jimmy Lai now.'

While saying that what Easy Finder did was wrong, Mr Tsao said: 'There are publications much worse than Jimmy Lai's. If you really want to campaign against the Ah Gill [Chung's nickname] incident, then you should stop acting just against one publication and start acting against the whole culture and the whole industry.'

He said the entertainment business had often used the paparazzi for publicity. 'The paparazzi have been around for 10 years. If they are really such an unforgiveable evil, they would not have survived in Hong Kong for 10 years,' he said.'There is a certain element of hypocrisy in all this.'

Mr Tsao said the whole Hong Kong Chinese media would have to change if anything positive were to come of this, but that the situation was complicated.

'I don't want my son to come across a newsstand and see these magazines with scantily clad women on the covers. I don't want my son to grow up in this kind of media environment, but I don't think this campaign will be able to change that,' he said. 'Once it has reached a political goal it will stop.'

Further underscoring the complexity of the relationship between the media and those in the entertainment business were accounts by Chan and others among the celebrities gathered of their own painful experiences with paparazzi. Also present was Daniel Wu Yin-cho, who has in the past railed against gossip magazines publishing secretly taken photographs of him and his girlfriend. Wu was the driving force behind The Heavenly Kings, a 'mockumentary' about how he and his band, Alive, manipulated the local media and fabricated entertainment news.

The level of public interest in this incident, however, has moved it beyond the entertainment realm. On Tuesday, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen said he empathised with Chung and pledged to renew discussions on reforming privacy laws.

The foundation for the discussions will be a set of proposals, put forward by the Law Reform Commission at the end of 2004, to make instances of unreasonable invasion of privacy a civil liability and to outlaw certain extreme behaviour.

It recommended that the law be amended to allow victims to sue for 'seriously offensive or objectionable intrusion', or when someone gives 'offensive publicity' to a matter of private life. It would be a criminal offence to trespass into a private place to infringe on privacy, as well as to use snooping devices with intent inside private premises where the victim has a reasonable expectation of privacy.

The commission also called for a new, independent statutory press commission to be established with the power to demand corrections be run and to seek court orders requiring publishers to take action on a complaint. John Bacon-Shone, former chairman of the Law Reform Commission's privacy subcommittee, said the Chung incident provided a good opportunity for much-needed reforms.

'I think that at the handover there was some apprehension about doing anything that might endanger press freedom, but now might be a good time to discuss balancing that freedom with a greater expectation of privacy,' he said.

Mr Bacon-Shone said Hong Kong's existing laws were not far behind those of Britain or the US, but that there were differences as to what standards of reporting were considered acceptable. 'In the US, I think the media probably wouldn't have done it even though there is nothing stopping them.'

He said the Press Council lacked statutory powers and could therefore do little but condemn inappropriate reporting. 'I think the Press Council has shown it doesn't work in Hong Kong because two major newspapers and the magazines don't pay attention to them,' he said. 'In Britain the Press Council is toothless, but the papers play the Press Council's game' because there was a credible threat that the government may step in to regulate otherwise. 'I suspect that the existing Press Council will start working after this,' he said.

Mr Bacon-Shone said he hoped that eventually all three pieces of the committee's proposal - civil liability, criminalisation of extreme behaviour, and a strengthened press council - would be adopted.

Serenade Woo Lai-wan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, urged caution when considering legal reform. 'If you say you need to legislate or regulate then you need to be very careful. We really respect privacy, but as journalists do their jobs we need to do investigative work where the subject doesn't want you to take a camera and go shoot.'

It would be a shame, she said, 'if regular journalistic work and the public's right to know are affected because of a small number of reports'. She said that in this instance, Easy Finder clearly violated the Journalists Association guidelines, but it was up to the public to discourage such reporting by boycott.

'Our role is to advocate,' Woo said. 'So all along we have urged journalists to self-regulate. The media executives and the middle managers all need to understand this as well, because often the reporter cannot simply refuse an order.

'As to why this happens, I think it is more of a structural issue. This type of reporting is just a commercial activity, and it is like supply and demand. If the public truly disagrees with the reporting they should really take action and not buy it.'

She said she feared the wave of public emotion may be carried too far. 'Everyone has the right to speak and voice their opinions, but I think at this moment there is a situation that is not too balanced. Discussion is good and we should have it, but I hope people will keep a rational mindset on this,' Woo said.

'Some things do not necessarily need to be blown up to an issue for the whole of Hong Kong,' she said.