Revamp tipped for obscenity watchdog

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2012, 12:00am


The government is floating the idea of stripping the Obscene Articles Tribunal of its duty of classifying publications, as it seeks opinions on how to revamp the system.

It is also considering doubling fines for publishing obscene material, citing public concern.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung opened a second round of public consultation on the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance yesterday. The government is taking views until July 15.

The tribunal, which was founded in 1987, is made up of volunteer adjudicators working with a magistrate. It has been criticised in legal circles because it serves both an administrative and a judicial function.

It classifies content at the request of the authorities or of publishers and decides whether it is indecent - making it available to adults only - or obscene and therefore banned. That is its administrative function.

It also rules on obscene and indecent articles when a dispute arises in criminal or civil courts and adjudicates on the question of whether or not something is indecent or obscene - its judicial function. The judiciary, the Bar Association and the Law Society say the roles should be separated.

The government has put forward two options which would involve abolishing its administrative work: appointing an independent board to classify material, or doing away with the classification altogether. Publishers would be able to seek advance classification under the first option, but not the second.

'These reform options seek to address the Judiciary's fundamental concerns of requiring the [tribunal] to perform both administrative classification and judicial determination functions,' So said.

So also proposed doubling the maximum fine for publishing an obscene article to HK$2 million, with the penalty for a first offence increased to HK$800,000 and for a subsequent offence to HK$1.6 million. The maximum prison sentence would be doubled to two years for repeat offenders.

Amy Yuen Siu-man, a volunteer adjudicator for the tribunal, said both proposals were flawed.

'If an administrative institution is set up, the government has sole power to decide who it will appoint,' Yuen said. 'This raises a worry about free expression of political views.'

If pre-classification were abolished and more cases end up in court 'worse-off parties might find the process much costlier than the tribunal,' she said. She said the level of fines should be lowered, not increased.

Lawmaker Peter Cheung Kwok-che, also a volunteer adjudicator, said the proposal to leave matters to the courts to decide seemed to offer the greatest flexibility for publishers.

Cheung said that if an administrative institution were to replace the tribunal, 'the adjudicators' mindset will sooner or later merge into one line of standard thought'. But he wanted further details before deciding which proposal he would back.