My last excursion on freedom of speech produced a variety of reactions. Some people thought it too long. Some people thought it too short and simplistic.
I have actually taught this topic and I can do two or three hours on the history and theory of the concept. I generally do not, however, explore recent efforts to justify curtailing the freedom of people whose views you disagree with, because I don’t agree with them. Hooting a speaker off the stage or having his visit preemptively cancelled is an infringement of freedom, whether the person concerned is a saintly Buddhist or a neo-Nazi.
Frankly I think in Hong Kong’s circumstances this sort of hair-splitting is a luxury we cannot afford. Freedom of speech is in serious danger here.
Consider two contrasting cases.
In August 1997 a Legislative Councillor of the pro-government persuasion took issue with two columnists who had disagreed with him. Both of them had day jobs at local universities so he wrote to the two universities urging that the two men concerned should be fired. When this became widely known it was made clear to him, even by fellow pillars of the establishment, that this sort of thing was not acceptable. He apologised.
One of the academics, who happened to be a distinguished visitor from America, returned home. The other, who happened to be me, continued to write columns unmolested.
Compare this with the case of Mr Edward Yau. Mr Yau used to write a blog on his own Facebook page, and also occasionally contributed pieces to the media under the pen-name Kursk. Many of these contributions were to Apple Daily or the HK01 website, so we may take it that Mr Yau is of a progressive disposition.
On the day after the Great Police Rally Mr Yau wrote a commentary on the matter, suggesting that the orator at the rally who had mentioned Nazi Germany had made a poor choice of analogy, and one might wonder whether policemen who gassed or beat demonstrators believed that they were “only following orders,” a defence once popular with retired SS men.
This was perhaps controversial, but hardly off the piste for acceptable public discussion. Supporters of the police could not really complain of rhetorical overkill after their own hero had compared peaceful demonstrators to Nazi death squads. I seem to remember writing something rather similar myself.
However Mr Yau was unlucky enough to be selected as a target by the Silent Majority, a downmarket pro-Beijing group, proprietor Mr Robert (“They could kill this city”) Chow Yung. The SM criticised Mr Yau on their website, as they were perfectly entitled to do.
However as the Silent Majority are widely regarded as a bunch of dimwitted paid puppets this no doubt did not have the desired effect on public opinion. So they decided to go after Mr Yau personally.
It happens that Mr Yau in his day job is a teacher at a secondary school in Chaiwan. So the SM people tried to contact the principal, clearly in the hope that he would give Mr Yau a hard time. The principal did not return their calls, so a troop of SM people then turned up at the school, claiming to be reporters, and demanded an interview. Drawing a blank with the principal, they then turned up at the clinic of the school’s supervisor, and tried to interrogate him. Other members of the school’s board of governors have reportedly also been harassed.
Mr Yau has now decided to give up blogging “to protect the people he loves.” He will in future concentrate on writing for Catholic publications. He said he had not had any pressure from the school. The principal reportedly said that what his staff said in their personal capacity as bloggers was their business alone, and the school would not interfere. He also said he would like some peace and quiet.
This, actually, is what gives actions of this kind their chilling effect. Somebody who has a day job and writes part-time will wonder, even if his employer says the right thing, as Mr Yau’s did and mine did, whether he ought to continue to expose his colleagues and students to harassment and possible violence.
This is a shameful episode. The Education Bureau, however, did not think so. Its reported comment was that society set high expectations for the behaviour of teachers, and “teachers need to be responsible for their words and actions.”
This was eerily similar to an unrepentant comment from the Silent Majority on Sunday, which said that “events prove that a person cannot escape responsibility for his words and actions.” Which leaves you wondering who was inspiring who here.
The SM also said that “their visits to Yau’s school were not threatening in nature, and they can be described as just the actions of concerned citizens.” No they can’t. Ordinary concerned citizens do not turn up at the workplace of a blogger and demand to interview his employer, masquerading as reporters. Clearly the people who turned up at the school were not reporters. So they were liars.
The SM went on to criticise sections of the media for publishing “slanderous” accounts of its activities. A little legal knowledge required here. If it’s in the media it’s libel, not slander.
While we are on the law let us also visit the Basic Law, which says that Hong Kong people enjoy freedom of speech, and the Bill of Rights Ordinance Article 16, which goes into some detail about the permitted limits of such freedom. Exceptions may only be “such as provided by law.”
There is no law which says that perpetrators of opinions deemed “malicious thoughts” by “concerned citizens” may be subjected to having a band of goons visit their employer masquerading as reporters. I infer that the actions of the SM were a clear breach of the rights accorded by law to Hong Kong citizens. This thought has apparently not occurred to relevant parts of our government, which is ominous.
It was nice having freedom of speech. Is it now time to say goodbye?