Hong Kong is to examine “loopholes” in the city’s laws against the spread of misinformation and may refer to overseas legislation, Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui told the Legislative Council on Wednesday.

Tsui said in that the government had combatted the spread of false information by releasing clarifications on government websites, as well as used the current legal framework to regulate online speech, such as the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

Secretary for Home Affairs Caspar Tsui. File Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Tsui said that Hong Kong citizens’ right to the freedom of speech is not “absolute.”

“The exercise by anyone of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities, and may therefore be subject to certain restrictions as provided by law as necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, or the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals,” said Tsui.

It comes after pro-establishment lawmaker Kwok Wai-keung demanded that the government regulate misinformation and disinformation, citing similar laws in Germany, France, and Singapore in a question to the Legislative Council.

“Now that other foreign countries have rich experiences in legislating against spreading false information online, Hong Kong should not allow the public to be exposed to lies and malicious attacks,” said Kwok on Tuesday.

In his response, Tsui said the government was “keeping in view legislations overseas relating to the online publication of information that is false or may prejudice public safety. We will observe their effectiveness and enforcement process to see if there are loopholes to be plugged in Hong Kong.”

Free speech ‘clampdown’

Chris Yeung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told HKFP that such legislation was completely unnecessary in Hong Kong, and that current laws already targeted actions that might constitute criminal offences.

Chris Yeung. File photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

“You can look at many places, such as Singapore. Unless Hong Kong wants to be like Singapore, it’s obvious that some so-called anti-misinformation laws are basically used to clamp down on freedom of speech and press freedom, turning it into political oppression,” Yeung said.

Singapore legislated against the spread of false information last year. Now, ministers have the power to determine what constitutes misinformation and the authorities can force news outlets to place government warnings on their articles. Individual offenders could be jailed up to 10 years.

Yeung added that it was misleading for Kwok to use places such as Germany and France as examples: “There are serious problems, such as racial issues in some parts of Europe. To casually quote their laws is already misleading… For the lawmaker to use these as examples to say that we should target misinformation in our society, he’s already misleading the public.”

Kwok also said that new laws regulating the online spread of information were needed as many people believed baseless rumours of deaths in the Prince Edward MTR Station, when riot police stormed the platforms last year.

Yeung said that the example showed exactly what was needed to stop the spread of rumours: “This example reflects exactly that, to reduce speculation, rumours or incomplete information, the government has to be as transparent as possible.”

“It showed that some of the so-called misinformation and rumours are caused by the government not fully disclosing a lot of things, obstructing the media’s work or filming, and not making all the available CCTV footage public.”

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.