- Registration time
- Last login
- Online time
- 1538 Hour
- Reading permission
By JOSEPH STERNBERG
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
February 19, 2008
Government officials here like to talk about how only a gradual transition to universal suffrage will assure order and stability. Yet the territory is now witnessing a perfect counterexample: the Edison Chen celebrity sex photo scandal.
For more than two weeks, the local press has been dominated by a flood of explicit photos of Mr. Chen -- a 27-year-old Canadian-born actor and rap singer with a bad-boy reputation and at best middling talent -- in flagrante delicto with a bevy of local starlets. The photos appear to have been lifted off the hard drive of a personal computer Mr. Chen took into a repair shop. It's the Hong Kong equivalent of the Paris Hilton sex tape, but much, much worse. The ladies involved have, unlike Ms. Hilton, built their careers around their bubblegum images. The careers of some of these stars may well be over.
But other contrasts of Photo Gate with l'affaire Hilton are more germane to the question of Hong Kong's future. For example, while Ms. Hilton's half-hearted efforts to suppress her tape were conducted by a clutch of private attorneys, the Hong Kong police have stepped in to sort out the Edison episode. One computer user was held for two weeks during the Chinese New Year holiday for allegedly running afoul of the territory's anti-obscenity laws, only to be freed late last week when the Obscene Articles Tribunal issued a preliminary finding that the photos are merely "indecent" instead of "obscene." Other alleged distributors of the photographs have been in and out of custody.
That revolving door has led to frustration with the police's handling of the case. Police Commissioner Tang King-shing and other top brass have made matters worse with a string of vague and sometimes contradictory pronouncements about the legality of simply possessing (as opposed to distributing) the photos.
Several hundred bloggers have taken to the streets protesting that the obscenity law is being applied selectively, with police cracking down on these photos because celebrities are involved while allowing run-of-the-mill pornography. Simmering in the background is the territory's lack of full democracy. Absent an open political system, there's no clear accountability for the police if indeed they have bungled this investigation.
Meanwhile, there's also the question of the Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance itself. Public opinion seems to be divided on whether it's appropriate to distribute the Edison Chen photos. Not only are the photos graphic, but the subjects never intended them to be seen by the public. It's hard not to feel sympathy for the celebrities involved, particularly the women.
But it's not obvious that the Obscene Articles Tribunal is well suited to make determinations on the decency of these, or any other, materials. The tribunal's decision last year to brand as "indecent" a coarse sex survey in a student publication at a local university had already raised questions about censorship in Hong Kong. The tribunal is supposed to uphold community standards of decency, but when the tribunal is accountable neither to voters directly nor to a government accountable to the voters, it invariably faces questions of whose standards it's enforcing.
Pornography has always been a free-speech minefield, even in the United States, which boasts deeply entrenched speech protections. Governments routinely ban, say, the distribution of pornography to children, and with good reason. But such bans are best imposed by elected governments after transparent debate. The process is arbitrary ("Is it art or is it smut?") and only an elected government can defend its arbitrariness with a plausible claim to represent the community's mores.
This scandal started with foolish celebrities exposing their private moments to Mr. Chen's camera, and then, inadvertently, to an Internet audience of untold size. It could happen anywhere, and has. But in this case, the shortcomings of Hong Kong's political system have aggravated the problem.
Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer with The Wall Street Journal Asia.