Despite Hong Kong’s previous free-wheeling online freedom, since the late 1990s no local pro-democracy activist has ever been prosecuted for speech online. That’s about to change now that activists can be arrested for anything posted in an internet forum or Facebook post. A court in Hong Kong just convicted four pro-democracy activists for posting a “public threat” on social media. As tensions escalate over democratic movements in China, and pro-democracy activists increasingly turn to social media to express their views, the increased policing of online speech means social media itself may become an online battlefield.
In case you missed it, check out our video on free speech at risk in Hong Kong.
While the new guidelines, created under China’s controversial National Security Law, has generated considerable buzz online, a lot of people have been puzzled about how the law even fits into the framework that already limits speech on the internet in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security Lai Tung-kwok reiterated the concept’s legal basis in a speech on the weekend, and it looks like lawyers acting for four people arrested in the case recently hired by an advocacy group said the law was unconstitutional, at least as applied in the situation of the five activists.
One arrest came with a $3,285 fine, one arrest for $4,400, one for $3,540 and one for $3,760. One person was also forced to pay 50 hours of community service and a $600 fine (which has been reduced to $150). We hear from the activist themselves that they only post small posts and they are outraged that they were found guilty.
“It’s completely insane and untrue,” an activist wrote on Facebook. “The kindest term for it is that this is overkill.”
Those arrested were required to appear in a court late last month and were convicted on four counts. They were found guilty of threatening authorities (their posts referred to the government as a “totalitarian regime”), incitement to hatred or to injure the reputation of others (their comments called for an end to protests and detainees and appeared to cause fear) and making a public threat (the posts did not explicitly mention forces but made the perceived threat clear).
“Through this offense, the defendants have caused significant public worry and fear to local citizens,” Judge John Onyamadibo stated.
That is an understatement. There is something horribly dystopian about the fact that the pro-democracy activists are being punished for making posts under a law that bans freedom of expression. These posts seem to have had little to do with politics in the broader context, and the police appear to have focused on the public threat the posts made. In any other context, this may well be seen as common civil discourse.
And yet, these posts were charged as criminal offenses – just a slap on the wrist for public officials, but the public took it as a damn fine warning. It is no wonder that people such as Emma Lo, who lost a Hong Kong election for a district council, got so nervous when an RFF candidate posted a picture of her on Facebook, before the election, and captioned it “elderly U.S. person”. That remark alone led to protests that turned into violent clashes that night.
Is the arrest of the five activists a very bad reflection on the proposed version of the National Security Law that faces a public vote this summer, or is it a bigger reflection on the police force and the government as a whole?
“By publicly making threats over public networks, the defendants have abused the public network itself and made the network itself a cause of criminality,” said Judge Onyamadibo.
As for the five activists, their community service is limited to video production – handing out leaflets to tourists, perhaps. These posts have caused no harm to anyone and there is no threat to anyone, at least as any form of the standard “public threat” invoked. In fact, these posts appear to be pro-democracy, about the extent of protest movements that only take small steps and activists are finding out. Those threats were made by activists, but now they have to actually learn how to make pro-democracy flyers.