By MARK PEARSON
[First published in Media and Arts Law Review (LexisNexis) in (2016) 21 MALR 119].
Hong Kong Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals
By Doreen Weisenhaus, with contributions by Rick Glofcheski and Yan Mei Ning (Hong Kong University Press, 2nd ed, 2014) 480 pp. ISBN 9789888208098.
Most authors of media law texts would not expect their books to become important historical reference works for centuries to come.
But that is exactly what I predict will eventuate for the University of Hong Kong’s Doreen Weisenhaus with her Hong Kong Media Law: A Guide for Journalists and Media Professionals, now in its expanded second edition.
Unlike most of our texts explaining the media law in English language jurisdictions, based predominantly on the inevitable evolution of the common law and legislation in countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the two editions of this book have captured communication law at that crucial historical juncture two decades after the People’s Republic of China resumed control of Hong Kong.
The compendium is an articulate explanation of media law still largely entrenched in the free expression of a former British colony, with a growing series of riders and consequences both within Hong Kong and for journalists who venture onto the mainland in their reporting and publishing.
For all those reasons, it is as fascinating as it is complex, making sense of a body of diverse laws spanning contrasting legal frameworks, press systems and languages in a unique historical moment.
Weisenhaus (and her contributing authors) have explained this clearly to journalists and students without falling for the temptation of over-simplifying what is undeniably a sophisticated and organic jurisprudence.
She does this by featuring chapters on the usual suspects in a media law text — the legal system, defamation, court reporting and contempt, privacy, access to information, copyright, and obscenity and indecency. Of course, all of those standard chapters also feature key cases and points of difference reflecting Hong Kong’s history, Chinese control, and the region’s cosmopolitan role as the financial hub of Asia.
However, important other chapters have a stronger Chinese influence on reporting the mainland, obscenity and indecency and media regulation in the age of convergence.
Appendices on key statutes and regulations, judicial practice directions, Access to Information, and useful links also feature an appendix by accomplished investigative journalists Chan Pui-king and Vivian Kwok on searching for public records of courts.
The instructional design of the text is also admirable. Each chapter starts with some frequently asked questions on the topic and directions to the section of the chapter where the answer might be found. The key chapters also feature a useful checklist for journalists on the subject at hand, clearly accessible as a quick refresher for a reporter on the run.
All this is enhanced by the author’s accomplished writing style — clear, concise and engaging — reflecting her earlier career as city editor of The New York Times, the first legal editor of The New York Times Magazine and later its law and politics editor, and her earlier stint as editor-in-chief of The National Law Journal.
Weisenhaus is now associate professor and director of the Media Law Project at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, a regular panellist on international free expression and media law forums, and contributor to comparative works.
In this book she impresses upon the reader the strong independence of the Hong Kong courts and the entrenched values of media freedom, each under pressure from the same kinds of national security measures confronting journalism in Western democracies combined with special new tensions as Hong Kong continues its adaption to its role as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
As the author explains in her overview, ‘those winds from the mainland have grown stronger, despite the “one country, two systems” principle that is supposed to govern relations between the mainland and Hong Kong’.
‘Thus, concern persists both within and beyond Hong Kong over the degree of its press freedom and the eventual contour of its media-law landscape, partly because of uncertainty about how much of a role the mainland will have in shaping (if not controlling) it’, she continues.
While the China question dominates thinking about the future of media law in Hong Kong, the problems of government surveillance, interference and downright censorship also worry journalists in Western democracies where press freedom was once valued much more highly.
A reflective reading of this important work by Weisenhaus and her colleagues brings this into sharp focus as we learn to appreciate that we all stand to lose many of our inherited media freedoms unless we find ways to apply a brake to government regulation and intrusion.
In that way, it is not just an important work for Hong Kong students and journalists and Sinophiles, but for all citizens and scholars with an interest in media law as the fine balance between free expression, other rights and the self-interest of states the world over.
© Mark Pearson 2016
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.