Rumour has it . . .

From the national security legislation to cybersecurity bill to civil protection law, some are wary of the government’s seemingly headlong rush to curtail the freedom of expression in the city

Rumours might even be “more destructive” than natural disasters. So said Ma Io Kun, Commissioner-General of the Unitary Police Service, in the aftermath of Typhoon Mangkhut, a Signal No.10 monster storm that hit the city last month, as the authorities were probing five cases of disseminating inaccurate information via online platforms.  

In the light of “lack of legal tools” to tackle this malpractice, as Mr. Ma put it, the government has recently proposed a civil protection bill, including heavier penalties for spreading rumours. Nonetheless, the latest effort by the Administration, coupled with the cybersecurity law and the possibility of new complementary rules for national security legislation, is deemed by critics as ways to silence opposing voices in society and limit freedom of speech, justified by the so-called good clauses. 

The lashing of Typhoon Hato last year, killing 10 people in the gambling enclave, goaded local authorities into reviewing and assessing the city’s infrastructure, civil protection mechanism, and other factors in the event of natural disasters and public incidents. One of the solutions is a draft bill of the civil protection framework law, which underwent a public consultation exercise in the June-August period. 

The draft bill, however, has raised eyebrows throughout society, spelling out a criminal charge penalty for those who spread rumours concerning civil protection or social stability during “public emergencies” with a maximum imprisonment of three years. Despite the reassurances of officials and pro-establishment figures regarding the necessity of heavier penalties the other end of the political spectrum is not buying it as the draft bill fails to define the nature of ‘rumours’. 

Penal Code 

“A number of existing clauses in the Penal Code could be utilised and applied to clamp down on rumours in the event of civil protection and emergencies,” said pan-democrat legislator Antonio Ng Kuok Cheong. Among the five cases of disseminating incorrect information during Typhoon Mangkhut Mr. Ma referred to, the authorities have so far successfully prosecuted one case under the Penal Code; a pair of siblings were also charged under the Penal Code last year for spreading rumours during Typhoon Hato.  

“Although strengthening the penalty could serve as a bigger deterrent against circulating inaccurate information, it also has its negative consequences . . . namely, suppressing the freedom of speech of residents,” Ng remarked. “So when one person hears that something has happened, they cannot tell this to another person until they have verified the news? This proposed bill will just disrupt the transmission of information in society.” 

Besides the contentious charge against circulating rumours, the draft bill also ‘emphasises the social obligation of mass media in helping disseminate important information concerning civil protection.’  

A charge of disobedience against individuals and persons-in-charge of institutions – including civil servants and government appointed media outlets – has also been introduced if such individuals fail to abide by the rules and orders issued by the authorities in relation to civil protection, an offence carrying a maximum prison term of two years. 

As the nature of media is to circulate messages throughout society, Mr. Ng believes the government does not need to specify this in the law, observing: “This proposal just gives more means for the government to control the media, which will not be beneficial to the public interest.” 

But he believes the government might drop references to the media in the final version of the bill, given the backlash from media workers. “By contrast, there has not been much repercussion about the rumours charge, so it remains to be seen whether the government will press ahead with this proposal,” he added. 

One after another 

Following the announcement of the consultation draft, the Macau Association of Journalists released a strongly worded statement urging the government to drop the clauses referencing the obligations of media and rumour charge. The media’s performance during Typhoon Hato last year did, in fact, show that the proposed bill is not necessary, while all media outlets are also governed by the press law and the audio-visual broadcasting law, the Association noted. 

“It is also worth noting that the government has proposed several laws since last year, from the cybersecurity bill to the civil protection law, in attempts to interfere with the operation of the media via legal tools. This is a trend about which society should be vigilant.”  

                                                                              – Macau Association of Journalists 

‘The seeming intention of this [civil protection] bill is to override other bills, greatly weakening the functions of media in supervising the government, and interfering with the freedom of press and information,’ railed the Association. ‘It is also worth noting that the government has proposed several laws since last year, from the cybersecurity bill to the civil protection law, as attempts to interfere with the operation of the media via legal tools. This is a trend about which society should be vigilant.’ 

The Executive Council concluded discussions on the cybersecurity bill this September, with the objective of improving the city’s regulations vis-a-vis the prevention and protection of its major public and private infrastructures against cyber attack. The bill proposes the implementation of a real-name registration mechanism for telecommunications services whereby providers will require customers to provide identification before they can access the Internet, mobile or other telecom services, as well as ceding power to the police to intercept online data to prevent cyber attacks and intrusions. 

These terms raised opposition from naysayers during the public consultation exercise concluded this January.  

“Based upon the Macau Government’s poor record of transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law,” political activist Jason Chao Teng Hei said at the time, “the proposed legislation might be seen as an attempt to authorise a legal framework for mass surveillance.” 

Article 23 

Political commentator Larry So Man Yum is concerned about more restrictions in the city.  

“Despite government justification, these efforts undoubtedly limit the freedom of expression,” he said, illustrating, for example, that the government has so far failed to define what constitutes a rumour. “It is really difficult to define the nature of rumours, which ultimately depend upon what we call ‘the will of officials’, which is not ideal.” 

“Macau is really different from Hong Kong because Article 23 of the Basic Law has been enforced in the [former] city, which covers a lot of areas. So does the [Macau] Government really need to step up its game?”  

                                                                                – Political commentator Larry So 

The political commentator questioned the elevated efforts of the government in recent years to curtail the freedom of expression – in particular in cyberspace – in relation to the self-determination and even calls for independence in nearby Hong Kong, the other Special Administration Region of China governed by the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ framework. 

The nearby city recently intensified pressure against the development of these ideas, taking, for instance, an unprecedented step this year to outlaw a political organisation that supports pro-independence. This move came as the Hong Kong Government removed incumbent legislators from their seats and banned candidates from running for the legislature who supported pro-independence or challenged the Chinese communist party. 

“Macau is really different from Hong Kong because Article 23 of the Basic Law has been enforced in the [former] city, which covers a lot of areas,” said Mr. So. “So does the [Macau] Government really need to step up its game?” 

Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, states that Macau ‘shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organisations or bodies from conducting political activities in [Macau], and to prohibit [local] political organisations or bodies from establishing ties with foreign political organisations or bodies.’  

The Macau legislature approved the relevant national security regulation in 2009, while Hong Kong has still failed to do so following a failed attempt in 2003 amid mass public protests. 

Homework for Beijing 

Nearly a decade after the implementation of the national security law, which has not been invoked since inception, Secretary for Security Wong Sio Chak announced this April that the Administration had launched a study on the possibility of establishing complementary rules for the national security law, which the authorities say is simply a legal framework at the moment ‘without any details’. The study could also address the rapid evolution and ‘complex situation’ of the city, rationalised the government. 

“The government has a lot of resources but it has rarely done anything to safeguard the basic rights of residents. By contrast, every new bill the government proposes seems to further restrict our freedoms.” 

                                                                            – Political commentator Wong Tong

A few months after the announcement, the National Security Council – an advisory committee headed by the city’s Chief Executive, with members comprising officials helping assist the government in safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development – was established in August. 

Political commentator Wong Tong is wary of the latest developments in the territory, saying these proposed bills and measures seem like the homework of local officials for the central government.  

“For instance, after Mainland China approved the Internet Security Law in 2016 [which was implemented the following year], the Macau Government proposed the cybersecurity bill by the end of last year,” said Mr. Wong. “The government has apparently closely followed [political] developments on the Mainland.” 

“This is not beneficial to the development of society,” he stressed. “I won’t say we enjoy much democracy: that’s why we need to cherish and respect what we do have. The government has a lot of resources but it has rarely done anything to safeguard the basic rights of residents. By contrast, every new bill the government proposes seems to further restrict our freedoms.”