Before books are considered illegal, lawyers should read them. I should know, I was once a censor in Hong Kong…

I was a book censor for a short time over 30 years ago while working for the Hong Kong Minister of Justice.

Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

In the fall of 1988, Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses was published.

The book was a publishing sensation for all the wrong reasons. It contained chapters that fictionalized episodes from the life of the Prophet Mohammed. The content of the book does not need to be discussed in detail here. Suffice it to say that it caused an outburst of anger in the Muslim world.

People were killed in riots in Pakistan and India over the book. Vigorous protests erupted in many other countries. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwah, a religious decree sanctioning the assassination of Rushdie and his publishers for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.

British author Salman Rushdie. Photo: Wikicommons.

The author hid for years, but this did not prevent zealots from killing him. He was last attacked in August 2022. The suspected assassin nearly killed Rushdie, who lost an eye in the attack.

Members of the UK Muslim community were outraged at the publication of the Satanic Verses. They asked the chief prosecutor to prosecute the publishers of the book. The director declined prosecution.

In Hong Kong, members of the Muslim community made a similar request, hoping booksellers would be prosecuted and the book banned.

The Attorney General, as the city’s Minister of Justice was called at the time, could not simply follow the English Attorney General. Hong Kong residents complained that Hong Kong shops were selling a blasphemous book. Blasphemy is a common law crime in Hong Kong. The Attorney General was obliged to examine whether a criminally relevant case existed.

The Attorney General knew that I studied English at university before I went to law school. He commissioned me to read the Satanic Verses from beginning to end. He believed that my English degree would be helpful when it came to balancing literary merit against objectionable content. When I was done, I was to provide a legal opinion on whether the book was blasphemous or otherwise unlawful.

The Central Public Libraries of Hong Kong. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

I remember spending about four or five days going through the 500-page book and taking notes. It was hard work because I don’t like magical realism novels. I ended my reading by reporting what I had known from the beginning; that the book was not blasphemous, since the common law offense of blasphemy applied only to Christian beliefs. I added that my reading revealed no other grounds for prosecution.

The Attorney General took my advice and booksellers were not prosecuted.

The decision not to prosecute disappointed many Muslims. Yet at least they knew that the government had taken their complaint seriously and that they could go to the Supreme Court if they wished to argue that Christians did not monopolize the criminal offense of blasphemy, as was done in England.

I mention my experience of censorship because book censorship is back in the news. Library staff at public libraries have recently been removing books from the shelves as if they were noxious weeds.

Our manager has acknowledged that books are disappearing from public libraries. He seems to think that’s a good thing.

The CEO said during a press conference: “The principles [of selection for removal] We use what I support to ensure no laws are violated in Hong Kong including of course copyrights etc; and also if they spread any messages that are not in the interest of Hong Kong.”

Managing Director John Lee. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

That’s a worrying statement.

It is justified when books are not returned to library shelves because their contents are against the law. However, before you can classify the contents of a book as illegal, it must first be read by a lawyer.

I would like to believe that even now the government advisers at the Justice Department are still busy reading all the books that have been removed to identify those crossing a legal red line. Possible offenses that come to mind are inciting crimes covered under the national security law or publishing a book with inflammatory intent like the books some speech therapists published in 2020.

“As long as I don’t write about government, religion, politics and other institutions, I’m free to print anything.”

Pierre de Beaumarchais

After reading a dubious book, government attorneys should, as I did over 30 years ago, offer reasoned advice and explain why the book is or is not illegal.

They must do this so that when the Attorney General is asked about the decision, he can explain it to those who want to read the book and to those who want to ban it. If someone does not accept a government attorney’s decision, they can go to court and obtain a final decision on the matter.

Ministry of Justice. Photo: GovHK.

However, the CEO’s other pretext for removing books from libraries is that the content of some books is “not in Hong Kong’s interest”. This statement is purely a value judgment or matter of opinion. It is not a statement of the legal status of a book.

Public libraries serve the benefit of all sections of the population. Librarians should select library materials that cover a wide range of subjects and are appropriate for all ages and tastes so that a library can meet the public’s reasonable needs for information and educational materials. Librarians must respond to the needs of the public without prejudice.

Librarians should not take books off the shelves at the behest of the manager. The sole criterion for accepting books for incineration should be whether a book violates applicable law.

In 2005, the United Kingdom’s Chartered Institute of Information and Library Professionals (CILIP) published a policy statement on Freedom of Thought, Access to Information and Censorship, leading the way for librarians to exercise certain discretion when acquiring or reviewing library materials to exercise judgment.

“Access [to information] shall not be restricted for any reason other than that of law. If no legal sanctions have been imposed for material in the public domain, it should not be excluded on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds in order to meet the demands of sectoral interests.”

Hong Kong Public Library. Archive photo: GovHK.

The CILIP is a respected professional organization. It accredits the University of Hong Kong’s Master of Science program in Library and Information Management.

I suspect that some library staff, familiar with the values ​​of CILIP, are not enthusiastic about discarding books that they added to library materials only a few years ago. You are in an awkward position. They need the support of influential people who are committed to ensuring that public libraries fulfill their role of serving the information needs of the entire community.

The body that should have an opinion on the matter is the Public Libraries Advisory Committee, which advises the government on the management of public libraries. If she thinks that access to library materials should only be restricted by law, she should say so.

However, if she believes that the selection and preservation of library materials should be guided by the chief executive’s personal views on what is good for Hong Kong, she should state her position clearly for the public to know. The subject is too important to ignore.

I close with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, playwright and essayist, who warns of the dangers of censorship: “Censorship ends in logical completeness when no one is allowed to read any books except the books no one reads.”

HKFP is an impartial platform and does not necessarily share the views of opinion leaders or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views and regularly invites figures from across the political spectrum to write for us. Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Basic Law, the Security Law, the Bill of Rights and the Chinese Constitution. Opinion postings aim to point out errors or shortcomings in government, law, or policy, or to propose ideas or changes through legal means, without the intent to arouse hatred, dissatisfaction, or animosity towards the authorities or other communities.

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