Privacy the real issue in nude photos saga

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am

Each twist and turn in the celebrity nude-photo scandal has Hong Kong agog. That young and attractive pop and movie stars are involved draws a natural audience, while the revealing nature of the images and the intrigue over how they were disseminated leaves many in the community eager for the next instalment.

Singer and actor Edison Chen Koon-hei and the women in the photos are the centre of public attention. Sex sells, after all, and some sections of the media have taken full advantage of that fact. There has been discussion - and much criticism - of the conduct of the stars involved. They may have been naive and foolish, but that is not a crime. That consensual sex has taken place between consenting adults is also not an offence.

For all the attention on stars and obscenity, though, the most important matter is being missed: privacy. The photos, however graphic they may be, are not public property; only with the consent of those involved could they be deemed as such. This consent has clearly not been given. What they did was never intended for the public domain. The stars have had their privacy violated and are victims.

The circumstances in which the pictures came to be distributed on the internet are still unclear. If the images were taken without permission from a computer taken in by Chen for repairs, as would seem to be the case, privacy is the key issue. Whatever is lawfully on our computer - no matter whether it be holiday photos, e-mails or scanned documents - is our own private business and not anyone else's.

The Basic Law protects privacy. In light of the celebrity photos case, the privacy commissioner does not think that the laws go far enough. He may be right. As matters stand, the case exposes what appear to be flaws in the law. To properly protect our privacy, the law must be effective and up-to-date. Developments with technology mean that the legislation needs regular review. However, whatever lawmakers determine needs adjusting or adding, the legislation must also strike the right balance with freedom of expression. It is important to ensure that free expression is not unduly curbed.

Many of those in the public arena, such as actors and actresses, owe a measure of their success to sharing, in varying degrees, their private lives with fans. In such circumstances they must expect there to be a high level of public interest in their private affairs, especially if they are found to have been untruthful or hypocritical.

But celebrities cannot be denied their right to privacy just because they court publicity to further their careers. Privacy is a right that applies to all, and it is one that has clearly been breached in the nude photos affair.