Chief Executive of Hong Kong Abandons Fake News Legislation Amidst Press Freedom Concerns

On April 2023, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, John Lee, shifted away from plans to enact fake news legislation, prioritising other legislative concerns like Article 23.

Chief Executive of Hong Kong Abandons Fake News Legislation Amidst Press Freedom Concerns
Photo Source: Bird's-eye view photography of city buildings, by Rusland Bardash, via Unsplash, 2018, Feb 14.

25-04-2024

Marina Sáenz

Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

On April 23rd, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, John Lee, delivered a statement of substantial consequence regarding the prospective enactment of legislation targeting fake news. Lee's announcement marked a departure from previous governmental inclinations, asserting that the cultivation of discipline and professionalism within the media industry obviates the necessity for such legislative measures. Against a backdrop of escalating apprehensions regarding civil liberties, Lee's remarks punctuate a critical juncture in the ongoing discourse on press freedom and regulatory interventions.

In 2021, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's former Chief Executive, initiated the proposal for legislation aimed at combating what she termed as "misinformation, hatred, and lies." This initiative found staunch support from John Lee Ka-chiu, serving as the Chief Secretary for Administration, and Chris Tang Ping-keung, the Security Secretary of the territory. Central to their advocacy was the recognition of the significant impact of unverified information circulated online during the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019. They contend that such misinformation contributed to a deepening rift between law enforcement and citizens, exacerbating societal divisions during the city's tumultuous period. However, Lee signalled a shift in approach last June, suggesting that the city might abandon plans to legislate against fake news. He emphasised that the government's current priority was the completion of legislation concerning Article 23, with the issue of fake news to be addressed through alternative means. This move followed concerns raised by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which cautioned that such a law could impede the operations of independent news outlets and significantly restrict the flow of information within the territory.

Justice Minister Lam stated to the South China Morning Post that addressing fake news had been partially addressed through laws mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law. Lam referenced Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which took effect in October 2019, highlighting the complexities in defining fake news. He expressed uncertainty about the effectiveness of Singapore's law and its potential adverse consequences. The United Nations Human Rights Committee's General Comment no.34 on Article 19 emphasised that international law does not permit general prohibitions on expressions of erroneous opinions or interpretations of events, indicating that fake news legislation could violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 19 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 19, both applicable to Hong Kong. However, Ronson Chan Ron-sing, Chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, expressed the association's approval of the government's decision. However, he underscored that this decision did not imply an absence of existing laws addressing fake news in Hong Kong. Chan emphasised, “When the government drafted Article 23, provisions were already made to address the dissemination of false or misleading information under the espionage or sedition offences”.

In 2023, Hong Kong found itself ranked 140th in the World Press Freedom Index, indicating ongoing challenges in upholding journalistic independence and integrity within the city. When questioned about the potential utilisation of the recently enacted domestic national security law, to address the proliferation of false information, Hong Kong's city leader remarked that the media landscape had shown improvement "since the worst period." Furthermore, Lee noted the commendable efforts undertaken by certain media practitioners and outlets in actively countering misinformation through refutation and correction initiatives.

 

Sources and further reading:

Irene Chan. (23 April 2024). No need for ‘fake news’ law as long as media industry practices self-discipline, Hong Kong leader John Lee says. HKFP. Retrieved on 1 May 2024, at  https://hongkongfp.com/2024/04/23/no-need-for-fake-news-law-as-long-as-media-industry-practices-self-discipline-hong-kong-leader-john-lee-says/

Takeshi Kihara. (15 August 2021). Hong Kong's call for 'fake news' law raises media crackdown fears. Nikkei Asia.  Retrieved on 1 May 2024, at  https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Hong-Kong-s-call-for-fake-news-law-raises-media-crackdown-fears

Natalie Wong. (23 April 2024). Hong Kong leader John Lee says no need for law targeting fake news, citing faith in practitioners’ self-discipline. SCMP. Retrieved on 1 May 2024, at  https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3260008/hong-kongs-john-lee-strikes-proposed-anti-fake-news-law-citing-faith-practitioners-self-discipline

Reporters Without Borders. (2023). Retrieved on 1 May 2024, at  https://rsf.org/en/index