After prosecutions, it's time to fix radio law

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 2009, 12:00am

The relentless effort and considerable resources the government has committed in its case against the unlicensed Citizens' Radio have secured another victory in the courts. But it is a pyrrhic victory and one for which the taxpayer will now meet most of the costs.

The way in which the legal battle was fought leaves the government open to allegations that it has been vindictive, narrow-minded and obsessed with winning at any cost. The activists broadcast programmes critical of the government and in support of universal suffrage. Their prosecution highlighted flaws in the existing licensing law. Now that the government has won, officials must face up to the task of revamping the outdated law. Hong Kong's broadcasting legislation urgently needs to be updated to meet the needs and conditions of a free and modern city in the 21st century.

No one is suggesting people should flout the law whenever they don't like it or find it wanting. The radio activists were clearly in contempt when they breached an interim injunction that banned them from broadcasting for eight days. Accordingly, they were fined this week and made to contribute HK$50,000 towards the government's HK$1.44 million in legal costs. The interim injunction was sought by the government in January last year after a magistrate ruled in the activists' favour. Douglas Yau Tak-hong found the charges unconstitutional on the grounds that the chief executive enjoyed unfettered power to grant or refuse broadcasting licences.

The injunction sought by the government was overkill; officials were already seeking an appeal by then. A government application for a permanent ban was rejected. However, the government won on appeal against Yau's ruling, and he had to rule against the activists. Legal issues have, as a result, been clarified. But the whole saga exposes problems with the law. It is technologically outdated as people can easily broadcast on the internet without needing a licence. If officials would now show the same zest in amending the law as they did in prosecuting the activists, they would do more to advance the cause of free speech and the public interest.