HK deserves a better obscenity watchdog

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 October, 2008, 12:00am

The Court of First Instance's ruling that the Obscene Articles Tribunal did not do its job properly in determining that articles on sex published by two newspapers were indecent is not surprising. Time and again, the obscenity watchdog has failed to deliver consistent and predictable judgments, so a decision that it has also not abided by the regulations by which it operates is no shock. Fortunately, a government consultation is already under way to review the manner in which the body does its work. It is to be hoped that after opinions have been gauged, a better classification board will be promptly put in place.

Despite the high-profile case, the tribunal's three members failed to say why they believed the articles published by the Chinese University's CU Student Press and reprinted in part by Ming Pao were indecent. They had also wrongly grouped the articles in question together when making their decision, rather than considering each separately. Those who appealed the initial ban are rightly rejoicing. The students involved are rightfully asking university officials who lambasted them over the articles and issued a warning to make a full retraction. Given the nature of what had been printed, the university's reaction was overly harsh.

The tribunal is part of the judiciary, yet the manner in which it operates does not live up to the high standards of our legal system. Those wishing to join the pool of 300 adjudicators put themselves forward, rather than get called up as for a jury. Between two and four will hear cases, which are presided over by a magistrate. The manner of selection and the numbers involved leaves judgments open to inconsistencies and bias. Workload pressures mean rulings are not properly thought through. Some tribunal members have a habit of discussing cases with the media while deliberations are in progress.

Our right to free speech does not mean that anything and everything can be said or published. There are laws determining the limits. Given the fluidity of community standards, it is important that the people interpreting them are as representative as possible. Tribunal members have to have a firm understanding of the laws they are enforcing and be in step with the society they serve.