n media law m
Hong Kong Tests the
Bounds of Indecency
by Doreen Weisenhaus
hey were the photos photos involving singer and movie actor
seen around the world. Edison Chen and numerous female ac-
Graphic sexual images in- tresses and singers, including Gillian
volving some of Hong Chung, half of the popular Twins singing
Kong’s most famous Can- duo, in what appear to be acts of consen-
topop stars ﬁrst appeared on the Internet sual sex.
in late January and then spread like a vi- Mr. Chen waited a month before re-
rus. As police began to make arrests and turning to Hong Kong and admitting to
more images appeared, a controversy taking the photos. The delay may have cost
about sex, celebrities and other issues less him the opportunity to take some early le-
clear dominated front pages and talk gal actions that could have helped contain
shows throughout greater China. cds of the crisis. The photos were stored on his
the racy photos sold briskly in Shenzhen; notebook computer, which had been sent
edited versions ﬁlled Hong Kong newspa- to a computer shop for repairs. A 23-year
pers and magazines. old shop employee has been charged with
The Chinese diaspora world-wide accessing a computer with criminal or dis-
helped make the controversy internation- honest intent and is scheduled to appear
al news. When cnn reported on the inci- in a Hong Kong court this month.
dent in early February, an online video Troubling questions have been raised
version of the story became one of its most about excessive police action and selective
popular within minutes of its posting. prosecution regarding the conduct of law
While public interest in the photos may enforcement ofﬁcials at the outset of the
begin to calm, the legal and political rever- case. The authorities responded quickly
berations will be felt in the weeks, months and in force to the demands of the celebri-
and years to come. As of early March, more n Ms. Weisenhaus teaches media law at Hong
than 20 people in Hong Kong, mainland Kong University and is the author of Hong Kong
China and Taiwan have been arrested in Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media
connection with the distribution of the Professionals (hkup, 2007).
ties’ powerful representatives that they prominent female legislator having sex
halt distribution of the images. The ﬁrst with a married politician were distributed
person arrested in Hong Kong for upload- by a Taipei magazine. The images quickly
ing one of the photos onto the Internet was leaped to the Internet, and for a time
remanded without bail and spent two Ms. Chu was the most popular name on
weeks in jail; he was released and charges some leading search engines.
were dropped after the local Obscene Ar- Four years later in Thailand, in strik-
ticles Tribunal determined that the image ingly parallel circumstances of the Edison
was not obscene. Chen case, a sex video of Thai singer Anna
Equally worrisome to many in Hong Jandrasopark was downloaded from her
Kong were the government declarations boyfriend’s computer after it was taken to
that it would review and possibly revamp a shop for repair. As in the case of Mr.
existing laws on obscenity, privacy and the Chen, who announced he was leaving
Internet. Netizens in particular fear that show business, the Internet distribution
Hong Kong’s mostly unfettered Internet and resulting scandal caused Ms. Jandra-
will be adversely affected by future cen- sopark to walk away from the entertain-
sorship of legitimate political or artistic ment industry.
expression. How the government and the Other sex tapes have surfaced in Asia
courts handle these legal issues are being involving politicians, entertainers and ce-
seen as a test of the city’s famed freedom lebrities, including in South Korea, Viet-
of expression. nam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Official
That freedom of expression is now en- reaction in some of the more conservative
joyed by Hong Kong’s media, but com- Asian countries has differed from Western
plaints about the way some of them covered countries, where sex tapes such as those
the story raises another set of concerns. In involving Pamela Anderson and Paris Hil-
recent years, many in and out of govern- ton were seen mostly as civil disputes
ment have argued that some of the city’s among the parties.
media undermine community standards In Vietnam, four college students were
with certain stories and photographs they charged in October with disseminating
publish. So far, attempts to establish any “debauched cultural products,” subject to
major new laws have failed to materialize, prison terms of up to 15 years, for alleg-
but the coverage of this scandal might pro- edly distributing an online sex video of en-
vide fresh ammunition for those who want tertainer Hoang Thuy Linh. The former
to rein in the media. publisher of the Taiwanese magazine that
The government submitted some of the distributed the disks of Chu Mei-feng was
media coverage to the Obscene Articles just released from prison late last month
Tribunal, which classiﬁed the publications after serving nearly half of her two-year
as neither obscene nor indecent. The gov- sentence for violating Taiwan’s privacy
ernment is challenging the classiﬁcation. laws; the penal code’s penalties were in-
While the Edison Chen photos may creased after the incident.
have been the ﬁrst major Internet celeb- Just how ofﬁcial Hong Kong will con-
rity sex scandal for Hong Kong, similar tinue to respond to the current controver-
controversies have roiled the region in re- sy remains to be seen. Events have
cent years. In Taiwan in 2001, Chu Mei- unfolded quickly across many fronts. But
feng became a household name in questions being raised include how to as-
Chinese-speaking communities across the sess the prevalence of any obscenity and
globe after thousands of video disks of the privacy problems, whether current laws
54 far eastern economic review m March 2008
n media law m
can adequately address any perceived tion about her, including her name,
shortcomings and what impact additional pleaded guilty in September to charges of
regulations might have. criminal intimidation and publishing in-
For now, several cases are wending decent and obscene articles and was sen-
their way through the legal system. The tenced to 240 hours of community service.
computer shop employee charged with But on March 3, the magistrate revised the
wrongfully assessing Mr. Chen’s computer sentence to include two months in jail.
faces up to ﬁve years in prison. Several Many are troubled by comments by Pri-
others accused of uploading images have vacy Commissioner Roderick B. Woo, who
been charged with publishing obscene ar- oversees Hong Kong’s personal data laws.
ticles, a crime that carries penalties of up He declared current laws inadequate and
to three years in prison and ﬁnes of up to called for creation of a criminal offense of
HK$1 million ($128,000). knowingly obtaining or disclosing personal
For the past several years, Hong Kong data without consent.
has been trying to sort out how it deﬁnes In an odd footnote, the scandal initial-
and handles obscenity cases, particularly ly showed an unexpected contrast be-
as they intersect with privacy issues, with tween the usually more free Internet in
some observers saying that the sar is using Hong Kong and its more restrictive coun-
obscenity laws as a substitute for more terpart in mainland China. While Hong
stringent privacy laws. In 2006, covert Kong police pushed local Internet service
grainy photos of Gillian Chung changing providers and locally registered Web sites
backstage at a concert published in a Hong to remove the “offensive material,” which
Kong magazine were upheld as indecent had not yet been classiﬁed, and obtained
even though they showed only her shoul- ip addresses of Internet users who alleg-
ders and underwear. Several articles in a edly uploaded photos, the mainland Inter-
Chinese University student publication in net was having a ﬁeld day, posting more
2007 about a survey on attitudes toward and more photos. That ended, however,
sex, including bestiality and incest, and a when mainland authorities stepped in to
newspaper’s coverage of the controversy stop the distribution. More than a dozen
were classiﬁed as indecent and a judicial individuals were reported detained or ar-
review of the classiﬁcation is currently rested for publishing or selling the photo-
pending in the courts. graphs or for posting them on the Internet.
Hong Kong also has been attempting to One individual was held for 10 days in de-
deal with related Internet issues. In May tention and ﬁned 3,000 yuan ($422) for
2007, a Hong Kong man who provided a providing links on his Web site.
link on a local Internet forum to an over- While the legal and political ramiﬁca-
seas pornographic Web site became the tions in Hong Kong are still evolving, some
ﬁrst person convicted under the Control careers have halted for now. In addition to
of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordi- Mr. Chen’s announcement that he will in-
nance for such an act and was fined deﬁnitely step away from the entertain-
HK$5,000 ($641). Critics asked whether ment business, the Twins have postponed
search engines such as Yahoo and Google their singing tour.
might also be challenged as they also pro- But they might take solace from the
vide links to pornographic sites. new career of Ms. Chu, the former Tai-
Another Hong Kong man who posted wanese legislator. She is now a leading
nude photos and sex videos of a former news anchor for Macau Asian Satellite
girlfriend along with identifying informa- TV.
Hong Kong Tests the Bounds of Indecency 55