Concern Ove Freedom of Speech in Hong Kong

The International Publishers Association (IPA) says it is “very concerned” over the freedom of speech situation in Hong Kong after five speech therapists-turned authors and publishers, were sentenced to 19 months in prison.

The individuals, who published a series of children’s picture books, were found guilty of ‘conspiracy to print, publish, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications’ by a Hong Kong District Court. Their case has been widely reported in the Guardian, New York Times and CNN.

According to the Guardian, judge Kwok Wai-kin, who is on a panel of national security judges selected by the city’s leader, wrote that the books were written in a way to guide the mind of readers and that the publishers did not recognise Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong.

One of the books, 12 Warriors of Sheep Village, appears to make reference to 12 Hong Kong protesters who tried to flee on speedboats to Taiwan but were intercepted by Chinese law enforcement in August 2020. The book depicts 12 sheep having to flee their village by boat after fighting against invading wolves, only to be captured at sea and put into prison.

The judge wrote: “The seditious intention stems not merely from the words, but from the words with the proscribed effects intended to result in the mind of children,” Kwok wrote. “Children will be led into belief that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] government is coming to Hong Kong with the wicked intention of taking away their home and ruining their happy life with no right to do so at all.”

The case underlines one of the chief problems of the freedom to speech question. Authoritarian regimes can always cite ‘security issues’ in order to clamp down on criticism of governments; and while they are happy to host universities with their traditions of critical thought, as soon as that critical thought is applied to the government itself this can be seen as disrespectful and can lead to action to ban it or indeed, to it not happening in the first place because of self-censorship.

Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee said: “The freedom to publish situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating rapidly. What was once a vibrant, free publishing market is being constrained, with cases like this clearly intended to scare other authors and publishers into self-censorship.”