No need for ‘fake news’ law if media practices self-discipline: Lee

There is no need for Hong Kong to legislate against “fake news” as long as the media industry exercises self-discipline, the city’s leader John Lee has said.

Chief Executive John Lee meets the press on October 31, 2023. Photo: Hans Tse/HKFP.

Speaking at a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Lee said he believed Hong Kong’s media outlets had “improved compared to the past.”

“I hope the industry can enhance the credibility of news information… I saw that some media workers and groups have made efforts in this area, refuting or correcting some disinformation,” Lee said in Cantonese.

He added: “My attitude is that if we can handle this [fake news] issue through self-discipline and professionalism, that would be the top priority. We should work hard together and there would be no need for legislation.”

Hong Kong authorities first raised plans to legislate against what it called fake news and false information in 2021. Then-secretary for home affairs Caspar Tsui said the administration was studying similar legislation overseas.

But Lee said last June that the city may drop plans to legislate against fake news. He said that the government’s priority was to complete legislation of Article 23, the homegrown national security law, and the issue of fake news can be tackled by other means.

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Reporters at a government press conference in Hong Kong. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has plummeted in international press freedom indices. Watchdogs cite the arrest of journalists, raids on newsrooms and the closure of media outlets including Apple Daily, Stand News and Citizen News. Over 1,000 journalists have lost their jobs, whilst many have emigrated. Meanwhile, the city’s government-funded broadcaster RTHK has adopted new editorial guidelines, purged its archives and axed news and satirical shows.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement on Tuesday evening that it “cautiously welcomed” Lee’s comments that the city would not enact a fake news law.

“As the HKJA has emphasised, so-called fake news is hard to define,” the statement, in Chinese, read. In today’s technological age and with social media platforms, any fake news or controversial information can be quickly clarified. [We] believe the authorities’ decision is in line with the law and public sentiment.”

Article 23

The city’s justice minister Paul Lam said in an interview published by SCMP on Tuesday that the government is not considering criminalising fake news as it is hard to define.

From left: Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Security Chris Tang announce the opening of the public consultation period for Hong Kong's homegrown security law, Article 23, on January 30, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.From left: Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Security Chris Tang announce the opening of the public consultation period for Hong Kong's homegrown security law, Article 23, on January 30, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
From left: Secretary for Justice Paul Lam, Chief Executive John Lee and Secretary for Security Chris Tang announce the opening of the public consultation period for Hong Kong’s homegrown security law, Article 23, on January 30, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

He added that the new local national security law, passed last month, had partly helped tackle the issue of fake news.

Separate to the 2020 Beijing-enacted security law, the homegrown Safeguarding National Security Ordinance targets treason, insurrection, sabotage, external interference, sedition, theft of state secrets and espionage. It allows for pre-charge detention of to up to 16 days, and suspects’ access to lawyers may be restricted, with penalties involving up to life in prison. Article 23 was shelved in 2003 amid mass protests, remaining taboo for years. But, on March 23, 2024, it was enacted having been fast-tracked and unanimously approved at the city’s opposition-free legislature.

The law has been criticised by rights NGOs, Western states and the UN as vague, broad and “regressive.” Authorities, however, cited perceived foreign interference and a constitutional duty to “close loopholes” after the 2019 protests and unrest.

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People enjoy Hong Kong’s scenery as the sun sets on March 12, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The law broadened the definition of “sedition” and raised the penalty for the offence of sedition to up to 10 years. It covers incitement of hatred against “the fundamental system of the State,” which is defined as “the socialist system led by the Communist Party of China” according to the Constitution of China.

It also penalises the intention to incite hatred “amongst residents of HKSAR” or “among residents of different regions of China.”

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