22 October 2016
Leung Chun-ying should come out and say that the proposed legislation will never be used  to suppress freedom of expression. Photo: HKEJ
Leung Chun-ying should come out and say that the proposed legislation will never be used to suppress freedom of expression. Photo: HKEJ

How to ease public concern over ‘Cyber Article 23′

Voting on the Copyright (Amendment) Bill, dubbed by opponents as “Cyber Article 23”, was delayed again in the Legislative Council last week due to a filibuster by pan-democrats.

It appears the government is working with copyright owners and their representatives in an aggressive promotion campaign to swing public opinion their way.

And it might have succeeded except that it chose the wrong person for the job.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So simply does not have what it takes to lead an effort to resolve an issue as contentious as Cyber Article 23 (in reference to a mothballed national security bill under Article 23 of the Basic Law).

It is apparent that So has failed to convince pan-democrat lawmakers and the public that there is no secret agenda behind the proposed copyright amendments and that it is not intended to undermine freedom of expression on the internet.

The problem is that this administration has lost the trust of the public in the wake of its handling of last year’s democracy protests.

As a result, anything it promises raises public suspicions.

If Leung Chun-ying and his government are unwilling to get to the heart of the matter, the bill may prove to be yet another political disaster for his administration whose popularity is already at rock bottom.

Most pan-democrats who have vowed to veto the proposal are not clear about the technicalities of the bill.

The amendments are, to a large extent, a political move rather than an attempt to strengthen the law.

But the government is pressing on with the proposal nonetheless, knowing it would not work.

The government thinks going through the technical details is a waste of time and that the public is not too focused on these issues anyway.

On the other hand, opponents of the measure believe they can defeat it by playing to people’s apprehensions and by political means.

Public concern that Leung Chun-ying’s administration might use the new law to crack down on dissent is not totally unfounded given numerous charges brought by the Department of Justice against activists in the democracy movement.

These arrests and prosecutions have created the impression that the government is belligerent, confrontational and anti-democratic.

That the government is trying to push Cyber Article 23 through the legislature despite widespread skepticism only reinforces that impression and deepens public suspicions.

The best way to allay public concern is for Leung to come out and say the government will never use the new law to suppress freedom of expression online.

Also, he should allow part or all of the amendments proposed by pan-democrats into the draft legislation and hold himself accountable if his administration fails to deliver on these promises.

But if Leung is unwilling to face the public on this matter, I would suggest the government withdraw this bill and re-launch a public consultation if it wants to avoid a political disaster.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 17.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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