New government guidelines have been enforced to allow Hong Kong authorities to censor films on the basis of safeguarding national security.

The updated censorship rules gazetted on Friday effectively allow censors to pull films they deem to be a violation of the national security law.

national security
Photo: GovHK.

The new amendments to the Film Censorship Ordinance instruct the Film Censorship Authority to be “vigilant” against the depiction of “any act or activity which may amount to an offence endangering national security” in vetting whether films are appropriate for public screening.

See also: How directors, distributors and devotees are struggling to keep Hong Kong cinema alive

A film which is “objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting such act or activity” may also be censored under the new guidelines.

“[H]aving regard to the fundamental importance of safeguarding national security and to effectively prevent or suppress any act or activity endangering national security, the censor may come to the opinion that a film is not suitable for exhibition,” the guidelines read.

cinema Hong Kong film
Photo: Wikicommons.

The guidelines also instruct censorship authorities to censor films that “would likely constitute an offence endangering national security.”

The Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development may also direct censors on how to exercise their powers.

Hong Kong’s national security law, criminalising subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, was imposed following months of pro-democracy protests and unrest. Democrats and rights groups have criticised the law as vaguely-worded and an encroachment of civic liberties.

The Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration is responsible for vetting and classifying films for public screenings.

‘Legitimate societal interests’

Announcing the enforcement of the new guidelines on Friday, the government said that freedom of expression must be balanced with the “the protection of legitimate societal interests.”

“Although fundamental rights (including the right to freedom of expression in the exhibition of films) should be respected, the exercise of such rights are subject to restrictions provided by law that are necessary for pursuing legitimate aims, such as respecting the rights or reputation of others, and the protection of national security or public order, or public health or morals,” a government spokesperson said.

hong kong cinema
File photo: Louise Delmotte/HKFP.

Last month, government officials visited a union office to warn them against screening two movie documentaries about the Tiananmen Massacre.

Last September, the Hong Kong government reportedly told an independent film distributor that two new documentaries about the 2019 pro-democracy protests must include an official warning about their content.

The warning that Ying E Chi was required to add in the beginning of the film. Photo: Ying E Chi, via Facebook.

The DVD of the film “Inside the Red Brick Wall” was returned to the producers by the Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA,) though it had been shattered into pieces, with the censors saying it had been accidentally damaged.

Before Friday’s new guidelines were rolled out, the Film Censorship Authority had the power to censor films in Hong Kong that depict excessive violence, offensive behaviour, or feature discriminatory content.

The change comes as the city approaches the one-year anniversary of the onset of the security law on June 30.

Local artists have expressed concern over a shrinking space for artistic expression and the freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Since the law’s imposition, screenings of protest-related documentaries have been abruptly cancelled after pro-Beijing voices claimed it was a violation of the law, while the city’s leader Carrie Lam has vowed “full alert” against art that endangers national security in the city’s public art spaces.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.