Radio listeners awoke today to the sound of radical activist ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung complaining that the Big Lychee’s government is following in the steps of the Singapore regime by using civil law to try to bankrupt dissidents. To quote the South China Morning Post:
Five Citizens’ Radio activists and the operator of the unlicensed station have each been ordered to pay a fine of HK$10,000 and contribute HK$50,000 to the government’s HK$1.44 million legal bill, in a civil contempt of court case.
The broadcasters have already been fined in criminal proceedings.
The government applied for the order given yesterday when the criminal charges, brought under the Telecommunications Ordinance, stalled because a magistrate in January last year held the provisions in the ordinance unconstitutional. The criminal charges went ahead when the magistrate’s order was suspended.
Yesterday, Mr Justice Michael Hartmann, sitting in the Court of First Instance, ordered the civil penalties after finding on Monday that the activists had been in contempt when they defied an injunction last year banning them from broadcasting for eight days.
Clearly, there is nothing very Singaporean about the independence of the Hong Kong courts. The Citizens’ Radio crew have flagrantly broken the law since 2005 by broadcasting without a licence. When the government took out an injunction against them, they argued that the practical impossibility of getting a licence (only two big corporations operate private stations) infringed their constitutional right to free speech. The court, to the amusement of everyone except humourless officials taking everything personally, initially agreed; it later ordered the broadcasts to stop. Citizens’ Radio stayed on the air as an act of civil disobedience. The government then came back with both a criminal prosecution for illegal broadcasting plus a civil contempt of court action for breaking the injunction.
That Long Hair and other illegal broadcasters committed a crime is undeniable, and a few weeks ago they were fined (fairly small sums) for broadcasting without a licence. If they refuse to pay, they could end up in prison as martyrs to free speech, which is why the powers will no doubt make sure, if necessary, that an anonymous benefactor pays on their behalf at some stage.
Was the government’s decision to pursue the civil case and demand costs, vindictive, malicious, an act of bullying, a warning to us all, or some other form of vile Singaporeanism? Our officials and their apologists would argue that the taxpayer should not have to pay all the financial burden imposed on them by injunction-flaunting radicals. The activists would argue that their disobedience was in the public interest. My argument would be that maybe the taxpayer should not also have to pay for a certain 16-mile high-speed rail track I can think of – or at least choose which of the two causes he would prefer to subsidize.
It is hard to believe that our top officials, in deciding to demand a small slice of costs, seriously think they will cow critics into silence and instill a fascistic, Lion City-style climate of fear in the population. They’re lots of things, but they’re not that. More likely, it was 10% hand-wringing about the principle of the thing, plus 90% good old-fashioned, bloody-minded spite by an over-sensitive, short-tempered government out of its depth and looking for someone to lash out at. And who better than Long Hair and gang?
I look forward to seeing the bailiff kick the door down and try to work out how much the laundry basket of unwashed Che Guevara T-shirts will fetch at auction.
On a sadder note: Shanghai’s new Disneyland is reportedly going to be smaller than ours. This apparently means we are stuck with the state-owned Rodent Theme Park in Lantau for a while more. So that’s what all those “sighs of relief from Hong Kong,” we hear all around us this morning are about.