The Legal Regime of Civil Protection received its final approval last night at the Legislative Assembly (AL).
Even though the law was unanimously approved in general terms more than a year ago, it has since raised significant criticism from several lawmakers considering its inclusion of a controversial new crime related to the creation or spreading of rumors during sensitive moments such as times of calamity or natural disaster. The lawmakers say this can be considered an attack on people’s freedoms.
On the line was Article 26 of the legal regime that establishes a new crime named “Crime against public security, order and peace in sudden incidents of a public nature.” Its inclusion has, since the first draft of the law, raised many concerns and criticism among several sectors in society.
Such opposition continued yesterday with lawmaker Au Kam San being the first to express his opinion.
“This is a new crime that did not exist before and so it deserved a lot of attention,” Au said, noting that although the government introduced “a lot of improvements” during the discussion of the law at the First Standing Committee of the AL, “it still represents a threat to the freedom of speech.” The democrat lawmaker promised to vote against the article.
Following Au, lawmakers Sulu Sou and José Pereira Coutinho also expressed strong opposition to the inclusion of the new crime.
“This is the reason this law is taking so long to be discussed,” said Sou. “If it was not for this article, I think it would have been possible to approve this law last year.”
To illustrate his concerns, Sou gave the example of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor known as the first whistleblower of the Covid-19 pandemic, who was silenced by mainland authorities.
Concluding his thoughts, Sou said, “a healthy society cannot have only one opinion. Rumors should be tackled with transparency and with civic education, not with the creation of a crime. If the government is more transparent and open with the population, there will be fewer rumors.”
Lawmaker Pereira Coutinho noted that the creation of this crime would add unnecessary concern to peoples’ lives, that will make the public worried about what they say or what other family members say.
“They will be in fear of saying anything or participating in anything,” Coutinho said, adding that the way to avoid unfounded rumors is by informing the public in a timely manner.
Giving the example of the daily briefings on Covid-19, created and maintained by the government, the lawmaker says that it is possible to inform the public and receive immediate feedback from the population. “More information equals less space for people to create stories,” he said.
For the lawmaker, the solution given by the security authorities to determine the intention of the person accused of spreading rumors is too complex, time-consuming, and expensive. He said that people can only prove their innocence “during a judiciary case that involves hiring lawyers and many other things.”
On the government side, Secretary for Security Wong Sio Chak, noted that all the questions now raised by the lawmakers had already been addressed and justified in the standing committee.
Claiming that many other countries and regions also have similar laws, Wong recalled that this crime has a particular timeframe in which it can be enforced and that is very restricted. It would not apply to any general situation in society, explained Wong.
“A person would never be penalized if the action is done unintentionally. As in this crime, we must prove that it has the intention to cause harm and the police must produce objective proof,” the Secretary said.
Wong also replied to the suggestion of Sou to solve the problem through civic education by saying that these efforts were already underway. “In fact, we do this [already] to improve the behavior of our population. But we cannot ignore that there is always a possibility of the law being breached by someone – even people that are not from our society.”
AL work extended until September 15
Lawmakers have approved unanimously the extension of the work calendar of the Legislative Assembly (AL) until September 15. The originally approved calendar has set the summer holiday recess to begin from August 15, but due to the interruption of the legislative work caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the AL has decided to extend its calendar year by another month. As explained by the president of the AL, Kou Hoi In, the extension will be used to continue working on the 11 bills and amendments that are currently being analyzed at the Standing Committees, with the aim of concluding them as soon as possible.