Freedom of the press is the embodiment of the right of the people to express their views and receive information freely.
Upholding the freedom of the press is far more crucial than helping the bunch of hypocrites on the University of Hong Kong council to save face.
It is also far more important than enabling our High Court judges, who are so ignorant about modern human rights, to save their face.
Anybody entrusted with public power should be subject to criticism when they do not act in the public interest, including our judges, especially when their decisions infringe the basic human rights and freedom to which every citizen of this city is entitled.
As the “fourth branch of government”, the media is under a moral obligation to strongly criticize our judges for their wrong decisions and awaken them to the implications of their mistakes for society.
How strong can such criticism be?
In 1987, the British newspaper Daily Mirror was outraged by the injunction granted by three judges of the Court of Appeal prohibiting any media coverage of Peter Wright, a former MI5 counterintelligence agent, and the contents of his book Spycatcher, which revealed some serious institutional flaws inside the agency.
In protest, the newspaper published the photos of the three judges upside down on its front page, along with a headline that read: “You fools!”
The fact that the media in Hong Kong is still treating our judges so nicely and respectfully even when they make mistakes in their decisions will only encourage them to do so.
In fact I feel compelled to point out that some of the decisions made by our High Court judges in the past that undermined our freedom of assembly and right to protest illustrate that they not only lack common sense but are also completely ignorant about social realities and the importance of upholding human rights.
As regards the recent injunction granted by the High Court against the dissemination of audio recordings of the remarks made by HKU council members during a meeting discussing whether to appoint Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as pro vice chancellor, it is a totally wrong decision, because it directly violates our citizens’ right to know.
Perhaps our local papers should also publish the picture of the judge who granted that injunction upside down, along with a headline that reads: “You fool!”
In my opinion, the Hong Kong Journalists Association should have staged a protest outside the High Court rather than HKU.
They should also seek legal advice and be prepared to go to any lengths to defend the public’s right to know, including violating the law if need be.
Besides, the injunction itself is completely meaningless, because it doesn’t apply to the audio clips that are already circulating in the public domain, such as on the internet, as some in the legal sector have pointed out, let alone the countless transcripts of the tapes that have already been read by hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens.
However, as the old joke about the bikini goes, what it conceals is more interesting than what has been revealed.
What about the remarks made by other HKU council members during that same meeting?
Is the media in possession of any more tapes that have yet to be made public?
If the answer is yes, then is it willing to ignore the injunction mistakenly granted by some High Court judge and air the tapes in order to fulfill its role as social watchdog and defend the public’s right to know?
The question here is, which in the following should be given priority when it comes to information that involves a huge public interest: upholding the public’s right to know, defending the dignity of the press, or saving the face of some prominent people on the HKU council?
I think the question is a no-brainer.
The fact that judges in Hong Kong have independent and superior social status doesn’t mean they are allowed to make decisions that are totally out of touch with social realities.
They should also stay alert at all times to any politically motivated attempt to use civil procedure as a tool to undermine our freedom, as in the case of the HKU council.
After all, most judges in Hong Kong are just a bunch of backward legal animals who have failed to keep up with the times.
They are still stuck on the same level as British judges in the 1970s and ’80s and only understand the law literally rather than having a real sense of what it really stands for.
Our media, too, has done a poor job in providing effective oversight of our judges.
I really hope that before the appeal against the injunction is heard by the court this Friday, more tapes will come to light.
It might sound a bit disrespectful to the judge who granted the injunction, but what our judges need is not respect but education and a bitter lesson.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 03.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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