17 August 2019
Hongkong Post has come under fire for playing censor and preventing student activist group Scholarism from sending a mass-mailer on the Occupy Central campaign. Photos: HKEJ, Hongkong Post
Hongkong Post has come under fire for playing censor and preventing student activist group Scholarism from sending a mass-mailer on the Occupy Central campaign. Photos: HKEJ, Hongkong Post

Is Hongkong Post stifling free speech?

With the campaign for electoral reforms set to enter a new stage in Hong Kong, a new controversy has erupted in the city — this time centered on the government’s postal department. 

Hongkong Post, the local postal operator, on Tuesday rejected a bid by student activist group Scholarism to send out direct mailers to the public to discuss issues related to a proposed civil disobedience program.

The department justified its actions by saying that it cannot distribute “illegal” content, but the explanation didn’t find many takers among pro-democracy groups, who accused authorities of stifling freedom of expression.

The leaflet that was sought to be distributed by Scholarism calls for a true democratic electoral system for the 2017 chief executive election, without any screening and filtering mechanism for those who wish to join the race. It promotes the idea of direct candidate nomination rights for the public, and also suggests that civil disobedience is justified if it leads to reforms.

The document lays out Scholarism’s stance on key issues in a question-and-answer format. Postal authorities are said to have objected to the following three items:

Q. Why do Hong Kong people fight for universal suffrage via civil disobedience?
A. We won’t have public nominating right if we don’t go for civil disobedience.

Q. Is civil disobedience a violent move?
A. We insist that civil disobedience is peaceful and non-violent.

Q. Why August is the time for action?
A. The government has confirmed Beijing’s proposal to block all democrats from being nominated as chief executive candidates.

Hongkong Post said the content violates its circular service rule 3.7, which states that “no person shall send any illegal, obscene, immoral, indecent, offensive or libelous writing, picture or other things by post.”

The department insisted that its move to reject the Scholarism bulk mailer was based solely on the rules and that there was no political factor behind the decision.

But critics aver that the questions and answers in the leaflet can’t be defined as illegal and indecent, as they only discuss civil disobedience and the reason for the potential campaign. There is no proof that the wording and content could be linked to any illegal action, they say.

A Hongkong Post staff trade union, meanwhile, also said that the decision not to accept Scholarism’s circular mail could be based on political judgment. It is very subjective on the part of Hongkong Post authorities to determine if the content of the leaflet is indecent or illegal, it said.

While Beijing as well as local officials have warned that Occupy Central is an illegal campaign and should be suppressed, observers point out that Hong Kong is a city well-known for its independent judiciary system where people are presumed innocent unless proved otherwise.

That means even if people are arrested by the police due to participation in the Occupy Central campaign, it doesn’t mean the campaign itself is violating the law. Statements made by authorities should have no influence when a case comes before a court. The judge will give a ruling based on the law, rather than go by what top leaders say.

Hongkong Post’s decision represents a threat to freedom of expression, observers say, pointing out that the department cannot play censor on what it considers to be politically sensitive materials.

Such move could set a precedent for the government to forbid distribution of any materials that are deemed to carry content that violate the government’s stance and policy, leaving less room for the public to discuss critical issues. 

Rather than support such actions, authorities should maintain neutrality. Unfortunately, the current debate surrounding the 2017 chief executive election, and other related activities such as anti-Occupy Central campaign, has broken the neutral line as senior government officials — including chief executive Leung and several of his cabinet members — have signed up for the anti-Occupy Central campaign earlier this month.

What the government is trying to do, critics say, is to suppress opposition voices toward the upcoming electoral reform package and force the public to support a not-so-perfect proposal.

Related stories:

Internet censorship: What Beijing govt will and will not allow

Beijing censors take small step toward transparency

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EJ Insight writer

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