Law criminalizing the dissemination of “false information” approved

The Legislative Assembly (AL) has approved a new civil protection law that provides for the criminalization of the spread of “false information”, a crime that has sparked criticism from legislators and jurists.

The “crime against public security, order and peace in public incidents of a sudden nature” punishes “anyone who produces or disseminates false information, with the intention of causing alarm or public unrest”, with a penalty of up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 240 days.

The penalty is increased for three years if the broadcast causes “effective public alarm or unrest”, “causes obstruction” to Public Administration action or creates “the conviction” that it comes from a public authority.

If the “false information” is issued by agents of the security forces or civil protection, the maximum penalty is increased by one third, the diploma also provides.

The text drew a lot of criticism from associations of lawyers and journalists in the city, who warned of risks to press freedom, leading the Government to abandon a formulation that foresaw the criminalization of the spread of “false, unfounded and biased news, in the face of sudden incidents of public nature “.

In the new version, the executive proposes less heavy prison sentences, clarifying that both crime and deceit occur in situations of operational response from civil protection, when the dissemination of false information can create social panic.

Despite the changes, the new crime has again aroused criticism from several legislators, who fear it could limit freedom of expression.

“Being a new crime, it will certainly pose a certain threat to freedom of expression,” criticized pro-democracy deputy Au Kam Sun, yesterday during the discussion in the AL.

Pro-democracy legislator Sulu Sou, who voted against, also argued that false information should be tackled more transparently. “If the Government is more transparent, there are fewer rumors”, he considered.

The youngest AL legislator also questioned the possibility that the diploma could be used to prevent criticism of the Government.

“In a catastrophe, if we think that the Government is not doing its job well […] these opinions and criticisms that the Government is incompetent […] would they be false information?”, he asked.

The legislator considered that a real “catastrophe” is the law that can affect freedom of expression and not knowing “who is going to be arrested” under the diploma, causing laughter in the room.

The pro-democracy legilsator also considered that Macau “does not need” this law, comparing the regime of the semi-autonomous territory with what is happening in mainland China.

“In Mainland China law, people who express opinions about a government official can be sanctioned,” he accused.

Legislator José Pereira Coutinho also expressed concern about the possibility of diminishing freedoms in the territory: “In Macau we have freedom of expression, it is different from Zhuhai [in mainland China]”.

The only Portuguese legislator also warned of the doubts that the law may raise in the population, who may not be able to interpret under what circumstances the crime of “false information” may be incurred.

Security Secretary Wong Sio Chak stated that the new crime is necessary to “maintain security and public order”.

“In a calamity situation, we must maintain, as far as possible, social stability”, defended the government official, pointing out that the spread of “false news” can “prevent people from making a correct decision” in calamity situations or ” sudden incidents “.

The security secretary also pointed out other countries “that also criminalize rumors”, such as France or South Korea.

The diploma should come into force on September 15, at the proposal of the Secretary of Security, who represented the executive in the AL.