The chairman of the Electoral Affairs Commission (EAC) has said that it is open-minded to relaxing existing regulations on publishing election messages on the internet, as some say the current legislation is too strict or outdated. But it was not up to the body to change the law, he said.

“There are worries that commenting on the candidates, or putting images of candidates, or suggesting voting for certain candidates on the Facebook may be regarded as publishing an election advertisement,” Mr Justice Barnabas Fung said. “Hence, we have updated the electoral guidelines to remind members of the public of the existing law so that they will not fall foul of the law inadvertently.”

Fung said that it will not normally be regarded as publishing election ads if one merely shares or forwards the candidates’ election platforms on the internet to express opinions with no intention to promote or prejudice the election of any candidate.

Justice Barnabas Fung Wah
Justice Barnabas Fung Wah (centre). Photo: GovHK.

“I am sure people will appreciate the difference between expression of opinions and outright canvassing for votes,” Fung added.

Fung was speaking at the RTHK programme Letter to Hong Kong on Sunday, when he addressed criticism that the EAC should change the law.

“The EAC is open-minded on this but it is not up to the EAC to change the law,” he said.

Fung added that society should reach some broad consensus on the issue before the government may consider how to take it forward: “[a]s a matter of fact, the government has indicated that it will be looking into the topic.”

In the programme, Fung also talked about the existing requirements for exit poll conductors, saying that there are strict guidelines and possible criminal liability for any breach.

Edward Leung Tin-kei
Edward Leung Tin-kei. File Photo: Stand News.

However, Fung did not talk about the new declaration that candidates for the Legislative Council election in September were asked to sign.

The declaration issued by the EAC last week asked candidates to acknowledge three articles of the Basic Law such as that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China, although candidates were already required to declare that they will uphold the Basic Law and pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the original nomination form.

Such a declaration was seen as a measure to restrict independence advocates running in the election. But the EAC, upon media enquiries, stated the declaration was not part of the nomination form, and that refusing to sign it did not mean the nomination will be voided.

Hong Kong indigenous candidate Edward Leung Tin-kei, who supports Hong Kong independence, refused to sign it. Pan-democratic camp candidates did not sign either. But Civic Passion’s Alvin Cheng Kam-mun, an independence advocate, decided to sign it.

Several candidates who refused to sign cited returning officers as saying that they needed to submit the signed declaration in two days after handing in their nomination forms, or the officers would consider seeking legal advice and asking for additional information if necessary, to determine whether the nominations would stand.

The EAC did not explain what additional information was required, the candidates said.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.