Inexcusable abuse of free speech

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2011, 12:00am


One of the biggest benefits of a society in which views can be freely aired is the role played by public debate. Ideas are expressed, different voices heard and public opinion gauged. In this way, informed decisions on important issues can be made. Such a debate is needed on the government's proposal to scrap by-elections when mid-term vacancies occur in the Legislative Council. Regrettably, two government forums on the issue in the past two weeks have descended into chaos due to rowdy behaviour from activists. This is part of a worrying trend which is threatening our city's long tradition of expressing our opinions in a civilised manner.

In the latest incident, a group of masked activists gatecrashed the forum and forced officials to flee backstage. Dog food was thrown at the constitutional and mainland affairs minister Stephen Lam Sui-lung and scuffles with government supporters followed when the activists seized the stage. This is unacceptable. Political stunts and violent confrontations must not be allowed to distract us from what should be a meaningful debate. The bill to scrap by-elections is controversial and it is not surprising that emotions have been aroused. There is room for a robust discussion and the expression of strong opinions. That is all part of the cut-and-thrust of politics. But that is no excuse for violence or for juvenile stunts.

For many, the government's consultation is a hard-earned opportunity to express views on this important issue concerning a proposed restriction on people's voting rights which some in the legal community regard as unconstitutional. The consultation was only launched after a protest by tens of thousands of people on July 1. There, we saw the vast majority of people expressing their opinions peacefully and their voices were heard. Now, the most should be made of the opportunity the consultation provides. Views should be freely expressed and fairly considered by the government. The forum was an opportunity for that to happen - and it was one which was wasted.

The activists accused officials of shutting them out even though many who had pre-registered through pro-government groups to attend did not turn up. Government forums, certainly, should be held in a way that enables different views to be heard. But any flaw in the arrangements does not justify the use of force. Legislator Leung Kwok-hung said fellow activists were prepared for the legal consequences. But the impact goes further than the legal liabilities of those involved. The disruption was an abuse of free speech - indeed it prevented others from expressing their views. There are only three weeks to go before the consultation on by-elections ends. We need a rational debate, not violent protests and political stunts.