Hong Kong: Authorities must uphold the right to protest

Civic Space 4 min read
ARTICLE 19
Hong Kong: Authorities must uphold the right to protest - Civic Space

ARTICLE 19 calls on Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to respect the rights of protestors and to refrain from a heavy-handed response to dramatic events that unfolded during Monday’s massive demonstrations.

Matthew Bugher, Head of ARTICLE 19’s Asia Programme, said:

“While authorities have a legitimate interest in maintaining public order and safety, any response to the events of recent days must be measured, proportional and respect fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to express critical opinions through acts of protest.

The attempts by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to label the recent street demonstrations as ‘riots’ is deeply disingenuous and belied by the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of this dynamic, powerful protest movement.

“Closing down avenues for dissent will only prove the protesters are correct in their assertion that the rights of Hong Kongers are being systematically undermined.”

On 1 July, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China from Britain in 1997, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, continuing a series of massive protests sparked by the introduction of a controversial extradition bill. The bill, if passed, would allow the transfer of individuals to face criminal charges on the mainland, severely chilling free speech in Hong Kong. In response to the protest, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended consideration of the bill, but has rejected demands for its complete withdrawal.

During Monday’s demonstrations, a small number of protestors disrupted an official ceremony commemorating the anniversary and others broke into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Building, leading to the arrest of at least of a dozen individuals. Many fear that the arrests are a precursor to a broader crackdown.

Internet and media censorship

The protests have again focused attention on the Chinese authorities’ stifling system of digital censorship, often referred to as the Great Firewall of China. A broad spectrum of search terms and content are routinely censored using increasingly sophisticated techniques to ensure that Chinese citizens cannot see or share material that is critical of the government or its policies, or that conflicts with official narratives.

During the latest protests, posts and pictures about the demonstrations have been routinely removed from the Chinese social media app Weibo and other online platforms. There have also been reports that messages about the protests sent using the messaging app WeChat have not been delivered to the Chinese mainland. In China, searching for the term “Hong Kong” delivers limited results that frame the protests as the result of interference by Western governments. This narrative has also been promoted by state media, which had by-and-large avoided covering the events in Hong Kong until it repeatedly aired footage of protesters breaking into the Legislative Council this week.

Bugher added:

China’s attempt to control the narrative about recent events in Hong Kong is a blatant violation of the rights of Chinese people to seek and know the truth.

“Hong Kongers are right to be worried about the slow creep of China’s repressive policies. Hong Kong is at the front line of China’s wide-ranging efforts to silence critics, whether they are at home or abroad.”