National anthem bill sets extended period for filing charges

January 10, 2019 15:21
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip (inset) speaks at a news conference on Wednesday to lay out details of the National Anthem Bill. Photos: Bloomberg, HK Govt

The government will table the draft of the national anthem bill in the Legislative Council for its first reading on Jan. 23, a senior official said on Wednesday, while assuring that legislation will be pushed only for the cause of protecting the dignity of the anthem and not for any political purposes.

At a press conference held to introduce the bill, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen promised that the Hong Kong version of the national anthem law, which took effect in the mainland on Oct. 1, 2017, will not have retroactive provision.

The main spirit of the bill is promoting respect for the national song, the March of the Volunteers, in behavior that is natural, easily understood and not difficult to display, Nip said, stressing that the new law won't affect the daily lives of the general public.

In a controversial move, the government however decided to set an extended term for statute of limitations to apply for prosecutions initiated under the proposed new law.

Once someone is deemed breaking the national anthem law, authorities will have up to two years to file criminal charges, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Following a decision made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Nov. 4, 2017, Hong Kong was required to add the new law into Annex III of the Basic Law, which lists applicable national laws, at the proper time.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive in Council agreed on Tuesday in a meeting that the national anthem bill should be introduced into the Legislative Council to implement the national anthem law in Hong Kong by local legislation.

On Wednesday, Nip described the move as consistent with the spirit of the "one country, two systems" principle.

He told reporters that the law consists of 16 clauses, and 13 of them, apart from Articles 9, 14 and 16, have been suitably reflected in the bill proposed by the government.

According to the draft, there are nine occasions where the national anthem should be played, including receptions for the National Day celebration and anniversary of establishment of HKSAR, official flag-raising ceremonies and major sports events held by the government, with the list subject to revision in future as deemed fit.

While the clauses included in the bill basically provide guidance on proper behavior at the occasions, those who misuse the national anthem or insult it could face criminal charges.

Under the proposed law, it is illegal to use the national anthem at private funerals, in commercial advertisements or as background music at public places. A convicted offender will be fined between HK$5,000 and HK$50,000.

As for insulting behavior, anyone who publicly and intentionally insults the anthem or alters the lyrics or the music score, or performing the anthem in a distorting or derogatory manner, will be deemed to have violated the law.

Anyone who intentionally insults the anthem or intentionally promulgates and distributes it in an insulting manner will be guilty of a criminal offence. The person could face a maximum fine of HK$50,000 and up to three years imprisonment for such offences.

Meanwhile, Nip said the bill allows for authorities to take up to two years to initiate prosecution against those deemed to have run afoul of the law.

That represents an extended timeframe for the statute of limitations to apply for the new law, given that in the existing National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance authorities have only 6 months for filing charges.

Explaining the decision, Nip said officers may need more time to investigate alleged offenses as the cases may involve a group of people or involve the use of internet and social media.

The two-year period will give law enforcement agencies sufficient time for investigation, he said.

Asked by a reporter if a lawmaker-elect can be disqualified for leaving the oath-taking ceremony when the national anthem is being performed, Nip said such an act is likely to be considered an offense under the new law if it constitutes an open and intentional insult to the national anthem.

The commissioner for oaths can decide whether the person completes a valid oath.

Once the proposed legislation passes first reading, a bills committee will be set up for further deliberations.

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