Obscenity watchdog criticised over student newspaper ruling

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 September, 2008, 12:00am

The obscenity watchdog came under fire yesterday, with barristers accusing it of failing to explain why a series of sex articles in a student newspaper was ruled indecent last year.

That omission was an affront to free speech and breached regulations governing the Obscene Articles Tribunal, barrister Erik Shum Sze-man told a judicial review hearing in the Court of First Instance.

'The tribunal actually tells us nothing about identifying the offending parts [of the articles],' Mr Shum told Mr Justice Johnson Lam Man-hon. 'It must ensure the public and interested parties know what are being restricted. It's time to correct the wrong procedures and correct the way they do things.'

Mr Shum represented Tong Sai-ho, the articles' author and the former editor-in-chief of the CU Student Press, who has been embroiled in a legal battle with the regulator since its decision in May last year to label his stories indecent - barring their future publication.

Ming Pao Daily News also weighed into the dispute after reprinting Mr Tong's articles for the Chinese University student newspaper - a mixture of surveys about various sexual topics, including bestiality and incest, accompanied by illustrations of foreign objects being inserted into bodily orifices.

Dennis Chang SC, Ming Pao's barrister, took issue with what he said was an 'absolutely vague' explanation for the indecency label.

'Logically, you can't do a proper classification without identifying what is indecent,' he said.

But Kevin Zervos SC, deputy director of public prosecutions, argued the regulator was not required to explain its reasons before the case went to a full hearing.

Tribunal members must issue a decision quickly to give publishers time to decide if they want to pursue the matter, he said, adding that the tribunal may change its mind after a full hearing.

'It is called an interim classification because it is interim - that's the whole notion of it,' he said.

The process was working until the applicants launched a judicial review, which had delayed the hearing they requested, Mr Zervos said.

He also rejected arguments that the tribunal did not make it clear why the material was deemed indecent.

Mr Tong and Ming Pao submitted material to challenge the watchdog's ruling at their now-delayed hearing, Mr Zervos said. 'If they didn't know what they were addressing, why did they submit material,' he said. 'If they were genuinely aggrieved, they had the opportunity to have it ventilated before the tribunal.'

Mr Justice Lam reserved his decision.