Jessica Goodfellow
Nov 5, 2019

Protest censorship seeps into Hong Kong, says privacy advocate

The Hong Kong government appears to be taking a stricter approach as the protests entered their 21st straight weekend, says Ray Walsh.

Protesters near Admiralty government headquarters on 29 September.
Protesters near Admiralty government headquarters on 29 September.

Censorship in Hong Kong appears to be ramping up. The High Court has granted a temporary injunction to block messages inciting violence on two of the most popular communication channels used by region’s protestors. This comes just weeks after Apple was pressured to remove an app that was being used to organise movements.

On Thursday (31 October) a member of Hong Kong’s High Court, Justice Russell Coleman, granted an injunction filed by the secretary for justice to restrain members of the public from “wilfully disseminating, circulating, publishing or republishing” any material online that “promotes, encourages or incites the use or threat of violence”.

The temporary injunction, which covers online platforms such as popular Reddit-like forum LIHKG and messaging app Telegram, bans such acts that would cause “bodily injury to any person unlawfully” as well as “damage to any property unlawfully”.

The interim injunction will stay in place until a formal hearing for the application is heard on 15 November. The announcement came as the protests entered their 21st straight weekend.

It is one of several injunctions secured by the government relating to the ongoing protests. Hong Kong courts have also granted injunctions blocking the disclosure of personal details of police officers and their extended families, warning protestors against occupying or defacing police officers’ residential quarters, and from inspecting the voter register.

But the broad language used in last week’s injunction has caught the attention of privacy advocate Ray Walsh, who argues that this makes it difficult to know where the line is, and how to be on the right side of it.

“The language used in the injunction itself is troubling because the description of what can be censored is broad—including the mention of actions that go against the public interest,” he says.

“This is even more concerning because it is not clear what the repercussions might be for any citizens found guilty of disseminating outlawed content. As a result, it is not immediately understood what level of self-censorship is now required.”

Apple’s recent decision to remove the app, which allowed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters to organise and track police movements, came following pressure from Chinese state media.

Walsh, who is a researcher at ProPrivacy, argues the granting of the injunction “is a sign that censorship in Hong Kong is now ramping up” adding this risks creating a “catch-22 situation” for its government and citizens.

“Carrie Lam's government is in an increasingly tricky position, and the danger for citizens appears to be that the longer the protests continue, the more the government uses increasingly totalitarian measures to enforce peace in the city—creating a catch-22 situation to which a solution is not immediately obvious,” Walsh says.

“For authorities desperate to bring an end to ongoing protests, the need to both monitor and curb potential violence on the streets is understandable. However, for citizens of Hong Kong any threat to online freedom and censorship is likely to be taken as further evidence of Chinese influence over the region,” he adds.

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