Hong Kong to Start Censoring Films on National Security Grounds

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Hong Kong is instructing censors to ban any movie that could be seen as endorsing activities that would contravene the national security law imposed by China last year, the latest curb on freedom of expression in the Asian financial hub.

On Friday, Hong Kong said it was amending guidelines under the Film Censorship Ordinance to consider the security law -- which bars subversion, terrorism, secession and collusion with foreign forces. The rules will determine the suitability of movies planned for public exhibition in the city.

Censors should be mindful of their duty to prevent and suppress acts or activities that endanger national security, including anything that threatens the “territorial integrity” of China, the government said.

“The censor should be vigilant to the portrayal, depiction or treatment of any act or activity which may amount to an offense endangering national security,” it said. That includes “any content of a film which is objectively and reasonably capable of being perceived as endorsing, supporting, promoting, glorifying, encouraging or inciting such act or activity.”

The new rules are the latest effort to roll back freedoms in the financial center, which is home to the regional headquarters of many international news organizations and is guaranteed freedom of expression under the city’s mini-constitution. Local authorities have also recently moved to restrict access to public information, including the important Companies Registry, and have launched an overhaul of public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, which has seen some hard-hitting programs and episodes canceled.

The new rules instructing censors to block films that could endanger national security use “very vague language” and are open to interpretation, according to Keith Richburg, director of the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Center.

“It’s hard for me to see how a film could endanger the security of any country, but let’s hope these guidelines don’t cause filmmakers or film distributors to begin self-censoring out of fear of crossing the vaguely delineated red lines,” Richburg said.

Since China imposed the sweeping law on Hong Kong in the wake of unprecedented unrest throughout 2019, authorities have used the legislation to arrest and prosecute dozens of activists, lawyers, former lawmakers and students, mostly for political speech that was deemed subversive. The law has been condemned by western governments, including the U.S. and U.K., and led numerous countries to suspend extradition arrangements with the finance center.

For decades, Hong Kong was also Asia’s movie-making hub, churning out immensely popular films and producing a handful of global stars. The new rules would appear to apply to anyone planning to screen a film in Hong Kong at movie theaters or public places, which includes private companies and members’ clubs, according to the original ordinance.

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