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Freedom of expression must not be stifled in the name of countering “fake news” (Recorded on RTHK’s Letter to Hong Kong)
2019-12-15

You may have recently seen a series of so-called government announcements in the public interest, or API, on TV, cautioning the public to be careful about information they receive on the internet. The API tells the public to verify and fact-check before believing these information, and not to spread misinformation, or the consequences can be devastating.

 

The advice is reasonable. But the intention may be dubious. Why? It is because the government and especially the police force but have been one of the biggest sources of misinformation in Hong Kong, during the last six months of pro-democracy protests which followed the government’s attempt to ram through the extradition bill. Needless to say, government claims about the extradition bill must have been some of the best examples of spreading misinformation, or simply lies. Likewise, many of the recent claims made by the police about their actions in their almost daily press conferences since this summer must be also justifiably classified as misinformation.

 

So, it is quite clear to many that what the government is trying to do is to monopolise what is true and what is not. In recent weeks, more and more government officials and senior police officers, running out of arguments to justify their own versions as their truths, simply resort to attacking the other sides’ views as “fake news.”

 

Some may remember about two month ago, a letter from the police to Facebook was leaked on social media. In the letter, the police requested the global social media company to remove a number of posts made by different users, based on the allegation that these posts were critical of the police and would potentially harm their reputation. Fortunately, the social media company did not comply with these requests.

 

The issue at hand is not fake news. The issue at hand is freedom of expression, disguised by the authority in the name of countering misinformation.

 

This week in the Legislative Council, in a written question put up by the Honourable Ted Hui, the police admitted to 621 removal requests made this year up to the end of November to local and international Internet and social media platforms, a whopping 18 times more than in 2018. The government response puts the blame on “a vast amount of fake news and baseless accusations that targeted the police.” It is simply ludicrous for a government with the lowest approval and credibility ratings in history to say that. To many, the government which refuses to even allow an independent commission to investigate the police is itself the biggest source of fake news, and not to be trusted.

 

The government seems to be saying that truth must be approved by authority, and its version of facts cannot be disputed by anyone, especially those who hold a different political view.

 

So really, where do fake news come from? In August, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube removed over 200,000 accounts which were tied to the Chinese government or state media, that were used purposely to smear the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests, and to spread misinformation about the protests.

 

Yet, it is now the Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment political figures that are making noises about fake news, saying that in order to counter these so-called misinformation, legislation should be passed to ban fake news. They would point to such legislation in other countries such as Germany, France, or Singapore.

 

When I was in Berlin, Germany, two weeks ago, for the Internet Governance Forum, in a summit with legislators around the world, we compared notes about censorship attempts by different governments in the name of protecting the people, but in fact at the expense of curtailing freedom of expression. A German member of parliament told me in no uncertain term that, “misinformation is legal in Germany”. She said that freedom of expression is enshrined in the German Basic Law and not to be compromised by any other legislation. The new law was just an attempt to regulate contents that are narrowly defined such as relating to criminal defamation, hate crimes, or Holocaust denial. But, criticising the government is certainly a right that is legally protected at the highest level of their constitution. Even so, the legislations of such laws in Germany or France were still highly controversial.

 

When I told this German legislator that pro-government politicians in Hong Kong are justifying removal of content on social media by quoting the German example, her response was — this must be an example of using misinformation to justify laws against misinformation, that is, plain censorship. Her conclusion was that laws in one land cannot be copied to another, or there will be abuse.

 

Hong Kong, by comparison with Germany or France, does not have the democracy and the power vested in the people to protect our people’s own rights. One can reference the recent case of Singapore, where it also passed an anti-fake news law, and in recent weeks have started to enforce it against people posting messages on Facebook. When a member of the opposition party posted an opinion criticising certain government investment decisions, the Singaporean government decided that was fake news.

 

So beware of the government’s evolving attempts to censor the internet and social media, by drumming up the negative side. The Big Brother wants to stifle information against itself, because that is the rule number one of hanging on to the authority they wish to continue to dominate. We must continue to guard against Internet censorship because no one else will save us. It is our — the people’s own — free opinion vs the government’s version of the only truth — that is what it is all about. And it’s worth the fight.

 

15 December 2019 @ RTHK Letter to Hong Kong

 

Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)