July 29, 2016

Hong Kong Book Fair ends in raid on obscene materials


Flag_of_Hong_Kong.svgShortly after our recent piece on the close of the Hong Kong Book Fair ran, reports of a massive search and seizure by Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration (OFNAA) began to surface. According to a press release posted at the Hong Kong government website, the OFNAA (which enforces “the standards of taste and decency accepted by the community” and provides “an efficient service for film censorship, publication monitoring and local newspaper registration”) has confiscated more than 1,400 copies of over 300 different titles on sale at the fair. The materials in question were suspected of violating the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance (COIAO). According to a spokesman for the OFNAA, the materials will be presented to a tribunal for further review and classification, and if they are found to qualify as “obscene articles,” the publishers may be assessed a fine of up to $1,000,000HK and may face imprisonment for up to twelve months.

At the moment, it is unclear exactly which titles have been confiscated, or if there is any political motivation behind the seizures. The press release cites “three public complaints against a photo album” which had been previously categorized as Class I (neither indecent nor obscene) and against which no further punitive action will be taken.

The press release offers no information on the other titles that the OFNAA black-bagged for classification, other than the fact that the operation was a “self-initiated inspection,” and that exhibitors at the fair had been notified of the terms of the COIAO months in advance and were responsible for ensuring their compliance with the ordinance.

No mention of banned books, Chinese state intervention, or the Causeway Bay Books disappearances was made in either the press release or the South China Morning Post’s coverage of the release.

According to statistics released by the Hong Kong government, the COIOA tribunals have, from January to May of 2016, “scrutinized” nearly 116,000 “articles,” performed 26,180 “inspections,” registered 264 complaints, conducted eighty-seven “operations” (it being unclear what exactly constitutes an operation: forced seizure of assets? Deposed testimony? Heated discussion?), seized twenty articles, and made twenty-four convictions. One public complaint was also lodged against a comic book, and several public complaints had been lodged in advance of the fair against a controversial series of books investigating illegal activity on the internet, titled Deep Web File and Deep Web 2.0 File.

Some of this terminology is unclear, and so it’s hard to get a perfect sense of how extreme the actions taken by the OFNAA against HKBF exhibitors are. But pretty much any way you look at it, the Hong Kong Book Fair seizures seem to massively outpace the agency’s activities in the first half of the year.

Whether or not these activities are related to the sale of books banned in the mainland remains to be seen, and unless the OFNAA is forthcoming about exactly which titles were under suspicion and what the results of their review process are, we’re unlikely to get a definitive answer. It seems impossible that the agency is unaware of the tensions between the restrictive Chinese government and the Hong Kong publishing community, and we would like to think that they will move swiftly to dispel any fears to the contrary.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.