HK court extends online messaging ban aimed at those inciting violence, which authorities say has had ‘very real and meaningful effect’

16-Nov-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

A Hong Kong court has extended a temporary ban on publishing messages online that incite violence previously granted to the city’s embattled government, as the civil unrest enters its sixth month.

Justice Russell Coleman of the High Court allowed the order he granted on October 31 to continue until trial or further order, despite objections raised by the Hong Kong Internet Society, who stepped in as an affected party in the legal action initiated by the Secretary for Justice.

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Under the temporary order granted last month, anyone who “unlawfully and wilfully” disseminates, circulates, publishes or republishes any material on online platforms — such as popular Reddit-like forum LIHKG and messaging app Telegram — that “promotes, encourages or incites the use or threat of violence” will be punished for contempt of court.

The ban aimed to curb illegal acts that could cause “bodily injury to any person” as well as “damage to any property”, according to the order.

The Internet Society, however, argued the ban was an attempt to censor online content, threatening freedom of expression in the cyber world.

In continuing the order, Coleman amended its wordings to the effect the order would only ban online materials published “for the purpose of” promoting, encouraging or inciting the use or threat of violence.

He also ordered the injunction could only restrain people who “wilfully” assist others to commit such acts.

At the hearing, Nigel Kat SC, representing the Internet Society, said the interim order had put innocent people at risk of prosecution.

Token gesture or effective measure? Ban on online material inciting violence

Kat accepted the justice secretary had a legitimate aim to prosecute people for inciting violence, but said any order which restrained free speech must be narrowly defined in terms of the criminal law, so as not to create a chilling effect on lawful communication.

“Even if it’s a lawful injunction on its face, you have to be satisfied … that the intrusion into the rights of people is minimal,” he told the judge.

Citing an example, he said members of the society worried the word “promote” in the interim order was ill-defined. “If you circulate a picture or a video of violence, it may be put that it is to promote the use of violence,” he said.

He also cast doubt on the effectiveness of the order that the justice department could hardly prove a user had published material that incited violence with full knowledge it bore such effect. The police were well capable of arresting online offenders by tracking down users’ details without the order, he added.

Victor Dawes, for the justice secretary, said a continuation of the temporary ban was necessary given the gravity of the social unrest. He added the temporary order had brought about “very real and meaningful effect”, citing the daily average of violent offences had dropped since the order was in place.

Dawes said the order had also alerted Telegram administrators to close down a channel called “Dadfindboy”, which was set up by doxxers who disclosed personal details of police officers for online harassment, but Kat rejected the claim as unsubstantiated.

Superintendent Swalikh Mohammed, of the Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau, who was present at the hearing, told the press the force had arrested one person in relation to publishing violence-inciting materials online earlier this week, over suspicion of incitement to commit public nuisance.


Category: Hong Kong

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