Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said the police may be given more powers to monitor social media to tackle “false and malicious information” and “rumours.” The government is also mulling a “code of practice” for the media to ensure the “safety” of reporters and police officers working at public events.

Lam’s remarks came a few hours after the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) published its 999-page report, which concluded that police behaviour during the city’s large-scale protests since last June was within guidelines but had “room for improvement.”

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Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

At a press conference on Friday, the Hong Kong leader praised the study as “fair and balanced,” “comprehensive,” “fact-based” and “weighty.” Standing in front of a screen showing protester violence emblazoned with the words “The Truth About Hong Kong,” she said the government had accepted police watchdog’s recommendations. The Secretary for Security will now set up a task force to review and follow up on each of the IPCC’s recommendations, she said.

Among the 52 recommendations, Lam said the government would prioritise the review of how to facilitate media reporting at public events, without hindering the law enforcement duties of the police. The government would also examine whether a “code of practice” should be jointly drafted with media. She said she hoped professional media groups would respond to the recommendation positively.

The Commissioner of Police Chris Tang admitted on Tuesday that the police treatment of journalists at last Sunday’s pro-democracy protest was “undesirable” after officers made reporters kneel, and ordered them to turn off their cameras as they pepper-sprayed them. Police have invited journalist groups to meetings next week to discuss ways to “make it more convenient” for reporters to cover public events.

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Police officer pepper spraying reporters at a protest. Photo: Jimmy Lam/United Social Press.

The government will also “seriously consider” measures to tackle the spread of disinformation and “fake news” on the internet. Lam said online promotional materials and posters relating to the protests were “very effective” in uniting and mobilising demonstrators.

She claimed the materials were used for disseminating unverified information: “[Some materials were] even used as weapons to doxx officers and their family members, to incite hatred towards the government and police,” Lam said.

She cited rumours about the incident at Prince Edward MTR station last August 31, when police stormed the platform and trains using pepper spray and batons. Some people had alleged deaths inside the station during the police dispersal operation, but Lam slammed such speculation as “not backed by any evidence.”

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

“The high volume of online speculation and rumours has led quite a few citizens to believe they were true,” Lam said, referring to the IPCC report which called the claims “extraordinary.”

In response to the situation, Lam said police powers to monitor social media would be enhanced, while procedures and mechanisms would be set out to allow the force to respond to public concerns and false information efficiently. The government would also review the mechanism for releasing information to the public in order to enhance transparency and eliminate rumours.

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Lam said the rule of law was the “cornerstone” of Hong Kong and while citizens had the right to fight for freedom, democracy and justice, they must exercise those rights within the limits of the law. She added that striving for democracy and freedom – or any other noble cause – could not be used as a defence for breaking the law or destroying public peace and people’s property. It was also not “an excuse to reduce criminal liability.”

“Everyone has the right to fight for freedom, democracy and justice, but these rights cannot override other citizens’ right to live and work in peace,” Lam said.

If people forced their views on others, it would be like “hijacking,” and would not be tolerated, Lam said, adding that her administration and the police force would “relentlessly say no to violent behaviour.”

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Rights NGO Amnesty International said in March that the current complaints system lacked investigative power and impartiality, falling below international standards. It said last year that police had used reckless tactics and retaliatory violence in their crackdown on protesters, resulting in injuries such as broken bones and internal bleeding.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.