Article was originally published in Hong Kong Free Press on 6 May 2017

Pro-democracy lawyers and politicians have criticised a proposed bill criminalising insults against law enforcement officers, citing “strange” wording and a threat to freedom of speech.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers Junius Ho, Priscilla Leung and Horace Cheung proposed the Public Order (Amendment) Bill 2017 on Friday afternoon, stipulating a maximum penalty of HK$5,000 and one year in prison for offenders. All three are lawyers by profession.

The proposed bill would criminalise uttering abusive or insulting words, behaving in a disturbing or insulting manner, or exhibiting a disturbing or insulting slogans against law enforcement officers.

Progressive Lawyers’ Group convener Choy Ki told HKFP that some aspects of the bill would violate the right Hongkongers enjoy to freedom of speech. “What is a disturbing or insulting slogan?” he asked.

“I don’t know if this is meant to be interpreted subjectively, or whether we are talking about the view of a police officer.”

He added that there were many existing provisions protect officers, such as the law against obstructing a police officer.

Legislator Ho said he hoped that the bill would cover officers from five government branches: the Police Force, the Customs and Excise Department, the Correctional Services Department, the Immigration Department, and the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

‘Strange’ wording

The legislators submitted the bill to the Department of Justice for a review of legal formatting standards. But Choy told HKFP that the much of the bill’s wording was “strange,” referring to examples in each of the four clauses.

“In law, we rarely use the term ‘the victim’,” he said in reference to the fourth clause. “The subject matter is the law enforcement officer, and the bill should stipulate ‘the law enforcement officer’.”

“We cannot just use the words ‘as the case may be’. Members of the public and legal professionals would feel frustrated as they have no idea what you are talking about.”

Choy added that some of the words in the bill were redundant, such as “repeatedly” and “in repetition” in the third clause. There are also no subordinate conjunctions in the first clause.

He expressed doubt that the Department of Justice would be able to accept the bill in its current format: “I have a lot of reservations about the English version of the bill… I think it needs to be rewritten.”

Legal scholar Eric Cheung and barrister Albert Luk also criticised the language of the bill in interviews with Stand News, while internet activist group Keyboard Frontline mocked its author as “illiterate.”

Increased possibility of clashes

Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said in a press release that the bill would only serve to increase the possibility of clashes between the police and members of the public.

He said that the definition of “disturbing or insulting” behaviour was too vague. “In the future, when people express slight doubts towards the reasonableness of police action when enforcing the law, will they have breached the ‘law against insulting officers’?”

The Civic Party added that police should win respect from the public through political neutrality and unbiased behaviour – rather than with a law against insults.

Pro-Beijing online media outlets such as HKGPao and Speak Out HK, however, voiced their support for the proposed bill in Facebook posts.

“Law enforcement officers face difficult tasks and make large contributions, there is no reason they have to be insulted by yellow-ribbon thugs!” wrote HKGPao, referring to the symbol of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy protests.

Following review by the Department of Justice, the bill must be voted in by over half of the 35 legislators in both the functional and the geographical constituencies. The pro-Beijing camp holds most of the seats in the former, while the pro-democracy opposition camp holds over half of the seats in the latter.

However, the distribution of seats may change following the government’s bid to disqualify pro-democracy lawmakers, and ongoing prosecutions related to the Occupy protests and the desecration of the national flag.

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