Hong Kong police invoke security law to censor online posts

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Originally published by Nikkei Asia on 16 September, 2021

HONG KONG — The organizers of Hong Kong’s annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown are deleting the contents of the group’s website and social media accounts under order of police.

The move marks the first known instance of the city’s police invoking powers granted under the national security law imposed last year by Beijing to eliminate online content if there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect they could pose a security threat.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China said that seven of its leaders had received a police order to remove everything from the group’s official website as well as its Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube channels, which together had about 75,000 followers, within seven days of Sept. 10.

In a post also displayed on a freshly created, second Facebook page, the group said the banned content would disappear by 10 p.m. Thursday. This was the only post made on the new page.

The police force said it would “not comment on specific cases” in response to a question from Nikkei Asia, adding that it would “act on the basis of actual circumstances and according to the law.”

In January, the authorities cited the security law to compel internet providers to disrupt access to HKChronicles, a website that compiled information on anti-government protests and personal data on police officers and those who publicly expressed support for them.

A pending bill that has attracted concern from Facebook and other global internet services would dramatically bolster the government’s powers to act against platforms used in such “doxxing” activity.

The police last week raided the closed June 4th Museum, previously operated by the Hong Kong Alliance, taking away a load of exhibits and records. About 2.2 million Hong Kong dollars ($282,776) of the group’s assets were frozen as well.

An online version of the museum which launched last month will continue to be operated by an independent offshore team led by Chang Ping, a prominent Chinese journalist living in exile in Germany.

The day of the museum raid, the police charged Alliance Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan as well as Albert Ho and Chow Hang-tung, then the group’s vice chairmen, with inciting subversion under the national security law.

The three, along with two other board members of the group, were also charged with breaking the security law by failing to meet a police request for membership lists, board minutes and financial information in relation to suspicions the group had acted in collusion with foreign organizations. All seven of the group’s board members are already serving prison sentences in relation to other cases or are in pretrial detention.

A day after the raid, Secretary of Security Chris Tang sent notices to the board members warning that the group’s corporate registration would be canceled to protect “national security, public safety and public order” unless they responded to him by Sept. 24.

Members of the group are due to meet Sept. 25 to vote on a motion to dissolve the Alliance, a step recently taken by several other pro-democracy organizations under pressure from the authorities.

The moves against the Alliance have drawn attention from international rights groups.

“The Hong Kong Alliance had always upheld the vision for a China that was ruled democratically, where the rule of law mattered, and where human rights were genuinely respected,” said William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

“Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are telling the world they’re not only afraid of the most peaceful protests, but also of their own brutal past,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “They should end this political persecution and immediately drop the charges and release the vigil organizers.”

“Hong Kong and mainland authorities should not be able to ban commemorations, shutter museums, and jail peaceful critics without paying a price,” said Yang Jianli, founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.

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