Jason Chao, local political activist and de-facto “Macau watchdog” on several matters that relate to the rights and freedoms of the people in Macau, expressed his opinion on the controversial Article 25 of the Civil Protection Basic Law, which is currently being discussed by the First Standing Committee of the Legislative Assembly (AL).
Article 25 establishes the creation of a crime for the “spreading of false rumors and tendentious news in times of crisis,” and has generated disagreement between the proponent, the Office of the Secretary for Security, and the people of Macau, including many lawmakers of the Standing Committee.
This time Chao addressed his opinion on the petition started by the New Macau Association (ANM) on July 12, calling for the withdrawal of the article from the bill.
July 12 was also the day that the government announced that it would present a new version of the Article with a clearer description.
According to Chao, the revision proposed is more precise on the description of the intentions covered by the offense, but still, “in my view, the ANM’s petition for a withdrawal stands regardless of this revision.”
According to Chao, the use of criminal laws to address the problem of misinformation or inaccurate information which may cause public panic “is not a general practice internationally.”
Chao additionally noted that the concept of misinformation itself might cause a lot of confusion as, “there is no good equivalent of the word ‘disinformation’ in Chinese,” which can create confusion between “disinformation” and “misinformation.”
“Both disinformation and misinformation refer to false, inaccurate or misleading information, [but while] misinformation means the type of false information not intended or not understood to cause harm, disinformation [relates to] the type of false information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm for profit,” Chao wrote in a statement sent to the Times.
In his opinion, the discussion on the control of the impact of false information should be situated “in the context of public policies concerning ‘disinformation,’ rather than the criminal laws of a [restricted number of] countries.”
Chao also said that in the context of the so-called “fake news,” popularized by the American president Donald Trump, “disinformation is a global issue. Macau is not the only place in the world affected by the problem of disinformation.”
“Almost all countries in the world have experienced the proliferation of disinformation in a variety of settings.”
Indeed, this is a problem that extends not only to governments but also to supranational organizations such as The United Nations (UN) who, in 2017, published a declaration on the topic of “Freedom of Expression and ‘Fake News’, Disinformation and Propaganda.”
Although the declaration “has no direct legal force,” as he noted, it “offers an impactful interpretation of the right to freedom of expression under international laws concerning disinformation,” and more specifically with regard to what concerns the criminalization of such dissemination.
Furthermore, the declaration gives no encouragement for the use of criminal law to address the problem of disinformation. Instead, the UN Special Rapporteur focuses on empowering journalists to critically expose disinformation and increasing the transparency of information sources.
These recommendations are echoed by other supranational organizations such as the European Commission, which published a similar document in which it stresses “improving the transparency of news sources and empowering internet users and journalists to seek true information and debunk disinformation.”
Both reports only refer to legal actions to be taken against information deemed to be, “illegal,” “defamatory,” containing “hateful speech,” and “incitement to violence.”
Chao finally noted that while the proposal of Article 25 was grounded in an “acceptable” example of where people spread “false information” – last year’s severe typhoon – the main issue is that the government proposal is not limited to such cases but extends to any “sudden public incident,” a dubious classification that together with the powers attributed to the Chief Executive and security chief, he fears could potentially be used too broadly.