Arbiters of decency need better rules

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


The way obscenity laws are enforced from one place to another reflects public taste and morality. But the situation in Hong Kong is somewhat different. The judgments made by the Obscene Articles Tribunal are often criticised as arbitrary and inconsistent, so much so that our society can be misunderstood as one swinging from being ultraconservative to overly liberal within a short period of time. Some decisions against nudity in arts exhibits have even made the city an international laughing stock.

Fuelled by a public outcry against a series of much criticised rulings, the government launched a wide-ranging revamp in 2008. Regrettably, the government's five-year term ends on June 30 and officials are still dragging their feet on the issue. The only comfort is that a second-stage public consultation on the way forward has not been swept under the carpet. That said, action should have been taken earlier.

The government has proposed doubling the penalty for first and repeat offenders, as well as taking away the tribunal's administrative duty to assess articles voluntarily submitted for classification. Proposals for regulating pornography on the internet and requiring internet service providers to install filters to screen out lewd content have been dropped. These appear to be sensible, though long overdue, steps. Hopefully, they will be adopted expeditiously by the new government.

The revamp will not be complete without addressing the long-standing problem - the failure to reflect community standards. After the first consultation, the number of adjudicators was expanded to some 400, but this still leaves a lot to be desired. The classification of whether an item is indecent and, thus, available to adults only, or obscene, and to be banned, involves only a magistrate and a few adjudicators drawn from the pool. Some veterans admit that despite established guidelines, the decisions are based on personal taste. There is a need to make our guardian of decency more representative and sensitive to prevailing values and standards.