Hong Kong Central Public Libraries
© Kyle Lam/HKFP
The Hong Kong Central Public Libraries.
Over 30 years ago, I was a book censor for a short time when I worked for Hong Kong's justice minister.

In the autumn 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 fictionalised episodes in the prophet Mohammed's life. There is no need to go into detail about the book's content here. All that needs to be said is that it caused a outbreak of fury in the Muslim world.

Rioting in Pakistan and India over the book killed people. There were lively protests in many other countries. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader, issued a fatwah, a religious decree, that sanctioned the killing of Rushdie and his publishers for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed.

The author hid for years, but that did not stop zealots from trying to kill him. The most recent attempt on his life was in August 2022. The would-be assassin nearly killed Rushdie, who lost an eye in the attack.

Members of the Muslim community in the United Kingdom were outraged by the publication of The Satanic Verses. They asked the director of public prosecutions to prosecute the book's publishers. The director declined to prosecute.

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

The attorney general, which was what the city's justice minister was called at the time, could not just follow the English director of public prosecutions. Hong Kong residents complained that shops were selling a blasphemous book in Hong Kong. Blasphemy is a common law crime in Hong Kong. The attorney general was duty-bound to consider whether there was a case fit for prosecution.

The attorney general knew I had read English at university before turning to the law. He gave me the task of reading The Satanic Verses from cover to cover. He thought my English degree would help when it came to balancing literary merit against offensive content. When I had finished, I was to give a legal opinion on whether the book was blasphemous or otherwise unlawful.

I recall spending about four or five days ploughing through the 500-page book and making notes. It was hard work because I do not like magical realism novels. I concluded my reading by reporting what I had known from the outset; that the book was not blasphemous because the common law offence of blasphemy covered only Christian beliefs. I added that my reading disclosed no other grounds to prosecute.

The attorney general accepted my advice, and booksellers were not prosecuted.

The decision not to prosecute disappointed many Muslims. Still, they at least knew that the government had taken their complaint seriously and that they could, if they wished, go to the High Court to argue that Christians did not monopolise the offence of blasphemy, which happened in England.

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

Our chief executive has acknowledged that books are disappearing from public libraries. He appears to think this is a good thing.

The chief executive said during a press conference: "The principles [of selection for removal] we use, which I support, are to ensure that there is no breach of any laws in Hong Kong, including, of course, copyrights, etc.; and also, if they spread any kinds of messages that are not in the interests of Hong Kong."

That is a disturbing statement.

It is fair enough if books will not be returned to library shelves because their contents contravene the law. However, before you can label a book's contents as unlawful, a lawyer must read it first.

I would like to think that, even now, government counsel in the Department of Justice are busy reading all the books that have been removed to identify those that cross a legal red line. Possible offences that come to mind are incitement to commit crimes covered by the national security law or publishing a book with a seditious intention, like the books some speech therapists published in 2020.
"As long as I don't write about the government, religion, politics, and other institutions, I am free to print anything."

Pierre de Beaumarchais
After reading a dubious book, government lawyers should, like I did over 30 years ago, give reasoned advice saying why the book is, or is not, unlawful.

They need to do this so, if asked about the decision, the secretary for justice can explain it to those who want to read the book and those who want it banned. If someone does not accept the decision of a government lawyer, they can go to court and get a final decision on the matter.

However, the chief executive's other pretext for removing books from libraries - that some books' contents are "not in the interests of Hong Kong". That statement is a value judgement or matter of opinion only. It is not a statement about a book's legal status.

Public libraries exist for the benefit of all sections of the public. Librarians should select library materials covering a wide range of subjects that caters to all ages and all tastes so that a library can meet the public's reasonable needs for information and educational materials. Librarians need to be non-judgmental when meeting the needs of the public.

Librarians should not be removing books from the shelves on the say-so of the chief executive. The only criterion for harvesting books for burning should be whether a book infringes a current law.

In 2005, the UK's Chartered Institute of Information and Library Professionals (CILIP) published a policy statement on "Intellectual Freedom, Access to Information and Censorship" that shows the way for librarians who must exercise some judgment when acquiring or reviewing library materials.

"Access [to information] should not be restricted on any grounds except that of the law. If publicly available material has not incurred legal penalties then it should not be excluded on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds, to satisfy the demands of sectional interest."

The CILIP is a respected professional body. It accredits the University of Hong Kong's Master of Science degree course in Library and Information Management.

I would guess that some library staff who are familiar with CILIP's values are not enthusiastic about culling books which they had added to library materials just a few years ago. They are in an invidious position. They need support from influential people who are committed to seeing public libraries fulfil their function of meeting the information needs of all the community.

The body that should be speaking out on the matter is the Public Libraries Advisory Committee which exists to advise the government on the management of public libraries. If it believes that access to library materials should not be restricted except by law, it should say so.

If, however, it thinks that the selection and retention of library materials should be guided by the chief executive's personal views on what is good for Hong Kong, it should make its position clear so that the public knows. The topic is too important for it to stay silent.

I end with a quotation from George Bernard Shaw, playwright and essayist, that warns of the dangers of censorship: "Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads."