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Journalists warn of chilling impact of Hong Kong’s planned ‘fake news’ law

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Journalists in Hong Kong say the government’s draft law banning “fake news” could make it harder for independent news outlets to operate, as well as limiting the activities of social media accounts that post factual content.

The government plans to have the legislation tabled and passed by the Legislative Council (LegCo), which now has no opposition camp, in the first six months of this year, claiming it is necessary to regulate “fake news.”

Acting home affairs secretary Jack Chan told a meeting of the LegCo home affairs committee on Monday that

“Since the violent protests of 2019, we have seen here in Hong Kong how fake news can harm society,” Chan told the committee. “Therefore, we need to use appropriate and effective methods to prevent its being released.”

“While current legislation in Hong Kong is able to target certain types of sabotaging content or content put out with ulterior motives … the coverage may not be comprehensive enough,” he said.

He said the government is currently looking at different ways to target fake news, including requiring online platforms to take responsibility for the accuracy of what they publish, and criminalizing the publication of fake news, requiring direct action from the police if it is discovered.

Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA), said the draft legislation appeared to be targeting far more than mainstream media, however.

“We’re not talking only about the media as it is generally understood,” Chan said. “It may also be targeting online news site, or even Telegram group chats or online discussion forums.”

Chan said the key role played by Telegram during the 2019 protest movement, which relied on its fast and efficient transmission of information to organize protests, had likely made it a key target of the legislation.

“Of course it will have a huge impact on the flow of information,” Chan said. “My view is that these platforms can … be very helpful for a lot of things, for example, passing information around group chats for residents of housing compounds during the pandemic.”

“But if we see someone wearing PPE and cleaning something, people might conclude that someone has been diagnosed [with COVID-19] … if we can’t confirm that diagnosis, would that be fake news?” he said.

Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) Ronson Chan (L) and Chris Yeung, chief editor of the annual report, after the release of the organization’s annual report “Freedom in Tatters” in Hong Kong, July 15, 2021. Credit:  AFP
Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) Ronson Chan (L) and Chris Yeung, chief editor of the annual report, after the release of the organization’s annual report “Freedom in Tatters” in Hong Kong, July 15, 2021. Credit: AFP

‘Color revolution’

Hongkongers typically rely heavily on group chat and Facebook pages to get first-hand news about public figures and campaign groups.

In January 2022, security chief Chris Tang said the law would clamp down on media outlets deemed to have played an “inflammatory” role, citing the now-shuttered pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, which is now subject to an investigation under the national security law, with several of its top journalists and founder Jimmy Lai awaiting trial for “collusion with a foreign power.”

Tang said the paper’s closure had made Hong Kong “more democratic,” accusing it of fomenting a “color revolution” during the protest movement of 2019, which began as a mass popular protest against plans to allow extradition to mainland China, and broadened into demands for fully democratic elections and greater official accountability.

Tang and the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have claimed that the protests meant that “targeted measures” are now needed to combat “fake news.”

Police on Tuesday arrested Cantopop singer and activist Tommy Yuen under the national security law on suspicion of “sedition” and money-laundering, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Police confirmed they are holding a 41-year-old singer over content he posted to social media that they claimed incited hatred towards the government, the police and judges, and have frozen around H.K.$140,000 in assets in connection with the case.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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