The battlefront in the ongoing civil unrest has extended from the open streets into the courtroom.
In October, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and the police succeeded in securing interim injunctions to ban anyone from blocking or damaging the 21 disciplined services quarters and police married quarters, and doxxing police officers and their families.
In the same month, the Junior Police Officers’ Association (JPOA) filed a judicial review application seeking an interim injunction to prohibit the Registration and Electoral Office (REO) from making the 2019 Final Registers of Electors/Voters available for public inspection and providing relevant particulars to anyone. The JPOA made an appeal after the Court of First Instance had dismissed the application.
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and granted an interim injunction order restraining the REO from making available for public inspection the voters’ lists, which show the voters’ names and principal residential addresses, and also restraining the REO from providing extracts of the lists and other relevant information to members of the public, until the disposal of the appeal.
Then, in its latest victory, the DoJ has secured another interim injunction to ban anyone from promoting, encouraging or inciting the use or threat of violence through internet-based platforms such as the LIHKG forum and the messaging app Telegram.
Last Friday, the High Court extended, until further notice, the validity of the interim injunction against doxxing, and also granted an application from the Hong Kong Journalists Association seeking to exempt journalists from the ban on disclosure of relevant personal data when they are engaged in lawful and legitimate journalistic activities.
It must be noted, however, that there are already existing laws that regulate online hate rhetoric, disclosure of personal data without consent, vandalism, etc.
So why are injunctions sought to ban these actions when they already have been rendered illegal under the existing law?
In my view, one possible reason is that as the credibility of the government and the police force has dropped to a historic low amid the social upheaval, the authorities are virtually at their wits’ end in trying to stop violence and chaos.
And as a last resort, they have to look to the courts for help.
That’s because while many people are highly resentful of the government and the police, the judiciary still enjoys some degree of respect in society – at least for now.
It’s not the first time that the authorities attempted to put down mass protests by seeking court orders. Back in 2014, during the Occupy protests, the police were able to clear occupied sites in the name of carrying out injunctions.
The only difference is that while the government relied on pro-establishment civilian groups to apply for injunctions five years ago, this time the DoJ has taken it upon itself to do the task.
To a certain extent, the injunctions might be able to deter protesters for the time being.
But by doing so, our government is virtually dragging our judiciary into political controversies, or even tapping into our court’s authority to rationalize its crackdown on violence and chaos.
And this could give rise to the wrong impression in society that our courts are taking sides with the government, which in turn could undermine public faith and respect in our city’s judicial independence in the long run.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 6
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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