Don't turn Hong Kong into a mono-colour ghost city

2007-07-02 - oiwan

Well... as some of you may have known, one of the article that i wrote for has been classified as Class II indecent articles by the Obscene Articles Tribunal. The maximum penalty is HK$400,000 and 12 months in jail.

I have just been interviewed by some reporters about "my feelings" towards the classification, the assumption is: since it is a civil disobedient act, I should be happy about the classification. Of course I have expected the possibility of such charge but still can't help feeling absurd and disappointed about the classification system. It has been a month after my previous exchange with the staff in and the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority. Then we were told that the case had been handed over to a higher level. It is, therefore, quite obvious that the government is well awared of the issue / public opinion and after internal evaluation, they still decide to carry on with the classification and charge. In other words, they still think they are on the right side and refuse to reform its system. As a Hong Kong citizen, how can I be happy about such senseless bureaucratic system that governs our daily life?

Chong has an interview with me two days ago and here is Roland's translation:

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Q: Recently you published a photograph from Flickr and the government's Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority turned their attention on you. The photograph has been classified as "Category II: Indecent" material by the Obscene Articles Tribunal. Why did you post that photograph in the first place?

A: At first, I wrote an essay that called for citizens to post hyperlinks to pornographic website. This is because there was a case in which a citizen posted some pornographic hyperlinks and the police went to his home and arrested him. The citizen pleaded guilty and paid a fine. I thought that this was a very uncivilized act. A hyperlink is not pornography; it is just a bunch of computer programming codes. My essay was an attempt to challenge the Obscene Articles Tribunal because it ignored the new technology and culture and it lacked commonsense. When I selected that picture, it was not part of my original plan about the hyperlinks. I only wanted to have a photograph to accompany the essay. I wanted to highlight some of the problems with the censorious standards at the Obscene Articles Tribunal. When I chose this particular photograph, I deliberately went to flickr, because flickr is an extremely popular web service. I used the single search term 'nude' to find this particular photograph.

I believe that nudity is not identical to indecency. The human body is not indecent in itself. From the various nude photographs, I use this one because I felt that this is a female nude that a photographer filmed with considerable design through the use of lighting and photographic techniques. I did not personally feel that this photograph was indecent. But I know that the Obscene Articles Tribunal uses the quantitative method of counting the number of exposed vital parts to make their classificaiton. My guess was that the current bureacratic procedure would deem this photograph to be indecent. That was why I chose this photograph.

Q. The Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority responded quickly. What do you think of their attitude? What are your feelings?

A: Actually, the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority called about one week after the photograph/essay appeared. They gave me an advice and asked me to remove the photograph because it may be indecent. At the time, my thought was that the Obscene Articles Tribunal had not yet made a judgment and the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority was just an administrative department. I asked that worker why TELA took action immediately after receiving one and only one complaint. As an adminstrative department, they should have followed through with the complaint and make some basic observations to decide whether the complaint was valid; if so, they could follow through. Previously, the movie was forwarded for classifcation after TELA received two complaints and the result was that shown on television repeatedly for ten years already. But with two complaints, censorship was immediately put into place. As for my photograph, a single complaint triggered an action. I felt that this tremendous expenditure of resources only resulted in harassing citizens.

Q: Do you know why it took so long to come up a Category II classification? It seemed to have taken several weeks.

It was almost a month. Some friends, especially those from the gay/lesbian community, called to ask me about the progress. Ordinarily, action is taken one or two weeks after the advice is issued. This time, it took one month. TELA called me first on May 28th with its advice. TELA called me again at the end of June about the preliminary classification. It was exactly one month.

At first, I thought that not being called by him was a good thing, because he might be thinking that the complaint was unreasonable. But it is obvious now that he must have gotten some legal advice and then something else happened in the meantime. Flickr had a new localized policy: from mid-June, the policy was directed specifically at the users in four regions such that the users from those regions will not see some of the photographs. These four regions are Germany, Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. This policy went into effect in mid-June. TELA referred my photograph to the Obscene Articles Tribunal on June 22nd. The Obscene Articles Tribunal determined within one week (that is, on June 28th) that the photograph was Category II: Indecent. This was some kind of concidence -- Flickr changed its policy and then the Obscene Articles Tribune received my photograph for classification purposes.

Q: Now that the Obscene Articles Tribunal has classified this photograph as Category II: Indecent, what are your feelings?

A: Since I posted that photograph, I expected that the Obscene Articles Tribunal would only look for the two vital parts and conclude that the photograph was indecent. I am conflicted inside. On one hand, I was hoping that they would not classify it as indecent based upon commonsense. As an organization, they ought to have some commonsense. As a citizen of Hong Kong, I hope that the Obscene Articles Tribunal of the government should have some commonsense. But on the other hand, I feel that this case was absurd. I thought that this case can be used to challenge the censorship system, including all the people inside this system. Last year, the Audit Department has said that 89% of the Obscene Articles Tribunal are over 40 years old. But the publications that they are scrutinising are intended for young people; the Internet contents are designed for young users. So why is everything being scrutinized by people over 40 years old with special backgrounds? Why can't the users decide for themselves?

Q: What do you intend to do next?

A: This was a preliminary judgment and there is still five days for a review. I will ask for a review. I have consulted with a lawyer who told me that if the same result is upheld after the review, the police will take over the case to determine the responsible party (i.e. myself or the website) and then follow through.

Q: Are you worried?

A: Actually, I am not worried. I am psychologically prepared to spend time to deal with this matter and to raise money. If the review is still unfavorable, I will appeal. In the 1995 case of the statue of David, the decision was overturned only when the case reached the High Court. The statue of David is a popularly received work of art and it even had to go to the High Court. I need to be psychologically prepared that I will have to spend a lot of time if this makes it to the High Court.

Q: What are you calling for the citizens to do?

A: The citizens should care about this case. More generally, they should care about the Hong Kong system for determining indecency/obscenity. As a cosmopolitan city, we need to have easy circulation and diversity in our information and culture. The citizens should also actively try to reform the system of censorship of obscene/indecent materials. For example, the rules should not be so rigid. One needs to look at the contents of the publication, or factor in the genre, or consider whether it is a work of art, or decide if it is just peddling pornography. In the case of the , the case was based upon a survey questionnaire and a discussion essay. Maybe some people think that while the essay was poorly written, the newspaper was not peddling pornography. During the process of examination, it is necessary to separate the discussions from the selling of pornography. When making the decision, it is necessary to look at the background of the materials and determine the reason why these things are being published. Presently, the Obscene Articles Tribunal does not care about the context at all.

Q: If you are going to embroiled in a lawsuit, are you worried about the financial impact on yourself?

A: Yes. I am presently a freelancer. Therefore, Hong Kong really needs an organization like the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the United States. That organization supports individuals to oppose unreasonable censorship. We can see that many things -- from copyright issues to adjudication of obscene materials -- are being directed against individuals. For example, some of the Internet cases were directed against individual netizens. As an individual who has to face up to this monstrous judicial system, many people will accept defeat and pay a few thousand dollars in fines because there was no point in making a big case out of it. Therefore, Hong Kong needs to have a foundation to support these individuals. Presently, some people are willing to pay the fines and therefore the law enforcement and judicial departments wind up with the sense that they are doing the right thing. When citizens accept this way, everything is rationalized. Actually, the citizens are being forced to accept. We need an organization or foundation to deal with these cases and offer supoortive work.

For example, I know that InMediahHK has recently establised a Free Culture Foundation. You can all go there to donate money.

There is a joint statement campaign, Don't turn Hong Kong into a mono-colour ghost city, organized by Hong Kong In-Media, and Hong Kong Federation of University Students calling for reform of the existing classification system. If you want to co-sign this statement, please send an email to here.

Here is a translation:

We express our regret on the Obscene Articles Tribunal's classification of the article posted at as Class II (indecent). This classification has once again proven that the OAT is very mechanical in evaluating speeches, expressions and creative works regarding "sex" and "body" and lacks basic judgment on an article's content, and the differentiation of beauty / ugliness, good / evil. Moreover, in recent year, the government's department and OAT's attitude towards descendent voices such as sexual minority, Chinese university student press and, makes us worry that the departments have been hijacked by some social groups for oppressing sexual minority and descendent voices.

Bureaucratic orientation in obscene articles evaluation is more indecent

We believe that the featured article "The beginning of censorship politics, urge for civil disobedient act in hyperlinking erotic sites" is not indecent. The article is an urge for civil disobedient act to protest against OAT's classification of a pornography hyperlink case as Class III (obscene article). Hyperlinks by nature is a series of code linking up the contents of two internet websites, it is not by itself "content" and shouldn't be regarded as indecent and obscene article. It is very proper for the author to question and protest against the classification by hyperlinking to erotic site.

The photo is also a hyperlink streaming of content. It is a nude picture. Let's put aside the argument on whether the html codes are indecent or not and focus on the photo's lighting, setting, postures, the photo belongs to a body art photo genre. It is an insult to our education to evaluate the photo as indecent by simply looking at the body parts. The case reflects how rigid and bureaucratic the present classification system is.

In the past few years, the classification system has resulted in many international joke, such as the classification of David Statue as indecent in 1995. Last year the local classic movie "Autumn's Tale" received a warning, this year the questionnaire of Chinese University Student Press's questionnaire on sex attitude, and etc. have already enraged people in the creativity, culture, art and academic sector. If this kind of absurd, lack-of-common-sense classification continues, it will result in even bigger public resentment.

Reform the obscene articles evaluation system ASAP

Apart from voluntary application for evaluation, the present system mainly follows up complaint. In recent years, some organizations with religion background (most of them are hostile towards sexual minority and diversified expression on sex) have actively organized complaint campaigns. They want to make use of the existing classification system to uphold a mono attitude towards sex in the society.

The Auditing Department has already pointed out in its report last year that, 90% of the present committee member of the OAT is over 40 years old. The tribunal lacks representatives from different sectors, such as racial and sexual minority, youth, lower class, cultural and art sectors, and etc. As a result, the classification has been very rigid and the system has been hijacked by some groups. If we don't reform the system, it will only be a governmental harassment to its citizen. It will eventually turns this multicultural international city into a mono-color ghost city.

We demand that:

1. The government withdraws the classification of "The beginning of censorship politics, urge for hyperlinking erotic sites" (Case No: OAGO000147/2007) and the classification of the Chinese University Student Press erotic page (as well as the report of the case in Sunday Mingpao).

2. Set up a committee that can reflect multi-cultural, age, racial and sexual orientation differences to reform the classification system by abolishing the mechanical evaluation and bringing back in the articles' content, genre, nature, and etc.

This statement would be handed, together with the classification revision, to the Obscene Articles Tribunal on the coming Thursday (July 5). For those who would like to co-sign the statement, please send your name, title / affiliated organizations / websites, and comments / advice to the government to inmediahk AT Please help forwarding the statement as well.

This statement campaign is initiated by

Hong Kong In-Media
Hong Kong Federation of University Students

If you want to co-sign this statement, please send an email to here.

(photo script: Obscene Articles Tribunal protects all Hong Kong Citizens away from sex, away from body, Thank SAR government's benevolence. Amen.)