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Monday, October 19, 2020, 23:43
Let’s be honest about freedom of speech
By Ho Lok-sang
Monday, October 19, 2020, 23:43 By Ho Lok-sang

There is uproar in some quarters over the deregistration of a teacher. Presently an appeal is in process, helped by the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union. There was also uproar over the extension of the probation period for an RTHK reporter. An RTHK labor union is unhappy about a statement made by the Deputy Director of Broadcasting (Special Support) Fung Kin-yip, who said that an investigation for her case would be based on “unguilty until proven otherwise”. Nabela Qoser, the reporter in question, complained that this constitutes an insult to her character and profession as she was not charged with a criminal offense. After the complaint, RTHK Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing apologized to Qoser for the misuse of words. 

The wording, given the context, merely suggested that unless proven otherwise the reporter would be presumed to have committed no wrongdoing. That she and the labor union were upset shows that people do care how others look upon them. Esteem and honor do matter. This is why language should be used carefully. In a civilized society, people need to be careful with the language that they use. In a civilized society, we all should communicate with one another with due respect for others as a person. Apparently both Qoser and the labor union agreed that there should be limits to freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, while Qoser was aware of the importance of being given due respect by the deputy director of broadcasting, she apparently was not giving Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor her due respect at a press conference. In that press conference, she asked Lam: “Can you talk more like a human being?” and “Can you sleep at night?” After she was criticized for the use of such language, Lam was questioned by another reporter if raising those questions “especially from a reporter of RTHK” would arouse oppression by the authorities, and if such oppression would constitute undermining press freedom. The chief executive replied that she always kept a distance from any administrative actions in relation to personnel actions, and she had no further comment on the incident. 

A question immediately came to mind: Is this a double standard? Does Qoser think she is entitled to limitless freedom of speech? 

If we are fair minded, we would all know that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not without limits. While press freedom is much valued in Hong Kong, we need to understand that it does not include freedom of reporters to insult, to engage in personal attack, to forge fake news, or to obstruct the police in their handling of social disturbances.

In Singapore, if it is deemed that action has been taken or threatened that causes many to fear organized violence against persons or property; disaffection against the president or the government; promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or other classes of the population likely to cause violence; procuring the unlawful alteration of the status quo; or otherwise threatening the security of Singapore, the government may impose “detention without trial to prevent persons from acting in a manner prejudicial to Singapore’s security or the maintenance of public order or essential services.”

Even in the United States, there are exceptions to freedom of speech. Exceptions include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, and true threats, among others.

In Germany, “freedom of speech and freedom of the press are limited by general laws, provisions for the protection of young persons, and the right to personal honor.” Among what is not allowed is “abusive criticism” (Schmahkritik). The Federal Constitutional Court defines abusive criticism as statements that are “no longer primarily aimed at addressing a debate in a matter-of-fact way, but at the defamation of a person. In addition to polemical and exaggerated criticism, it must include a degradation of the person.” Such abusive criticism is not included in the scope of protection. Would Nabela Qoser’s “question” to the chief executive fall into this category? 

Thus “freedom of speech” and “freedom of the press” are complex subjects. It was ambitious for the deregistered teacher to attempt to teach freedom of speech to primary five students. As a professional teacher, he certainly needs to at least attempt to explain to students that there are justifiable limits to freedom of speech, but there is no evidence that he ever did. Availing pupils of Andy Chan Ho-tin’s narrative on why Hong Kong should become independent of China, and asking students the reasons, is not teaching freedom of speech. The title of the worksheet in question “The Redline that Must Not Be Crossed” appears to imply there should not be any redline or limit to speech freedom.

The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union said the deregistered teacher had played an episode produced by The Hong Kong Connection titled: The Redline that Cannot Be Touched, which included an alternative view from Ronny Tong Ka-wah. But the bulk of the episode, including the final remark given by Johannes Chan Man-mun at the end of the video, clearly gives the impression that the SAR government is compressing Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Let’s be honest. Do we want freedom of speech without limits?

The author is a senior research fellow at Pan Sutong Shanghai-Hong Kong Economic Policy Research Institute, Lingnan University.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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