HK court bans democracy song

Source: NYT (5/8/24)
Hong Kong Court Bans Democracy Song, Calling It a ‘Weapon’
The decision could give the government power to force Google and other tech companies to limit access to “Glory to Hong Kong,” an anthem of 2019 protests.
By Tiffany May, Reporting from Hong Kong

People, most of them wearing face masks, gather outdoors and sing at night. Many of them are holding their phones to shine lights.

People singing “Glory to Hong Kong” during a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong in 2019. Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A Hong Kong court on Wednesday granted a government request to ban a popular pro-democracy anthem, raising further concerns about free speech in the city.

The decision, which overturned an initial ruling, could give the government power to force Google and other tech companies to restrict online access to the song in Hong Kong. The decision threatens to deepen anxiety about the city’s status as an international gateway to China, away from its censorship controls.

At issue in the case is “Glory to Hong Kong,” which emerged in 2019 as an unofficial anthem for democracy protests and a flashpoint for the authorities, who considered it an insult to China’s national anthem. The song has been banned from Hong Kong schools and has drawn angry official rebukes when played, apparently by mistake, at international sports events.

Beijing has asserted greater control over the former British colony in recent years by imposing a national security law that has crushed nearly all forms of dissent. People convicted of posting seditious content online have gone to prison.

Lin Jian, a spokesman of China’s foreign ministry, said in a news briefing that the court’s verdict was a “legitimate and necessary move by Hong Kong to fulfill its constitutional responsibility of safeguarding national security and the dignity of the national anthem.”

In March, the Hong Kong government enacted new security legislation that criminalized offenses like “external interference” and the theft of state secrets, creating potential risks for multinational companies operating in the Asian financial center.

In the “Glory to Hong Kong” case, a lower court judge ruled against the government last July and warned that an injunction against the song would cause a “chilling effect” in Hong Kong.

But in flipping that decision, three appellate judges said Wednesday that the anthem was a “weapon” that could be used to undermine national security.

“It has the effect of justifying and even romanticizing and glorifying the unlawful and violent acts inflicted on Hong Kong in the past few years, arousing and rekindling strong emotions and the desire to violent confrontations,” the court wrote.

The petition does not name any companies or individuals but listed 32 links to videos of “Glory to Hong Kong” on YouTube or its sibling company, Google.

The government injunction, the court said, was “necessary to persuade” technology companies to “remove” the songs from their platforms.

A representative for Google said the company was reviewing the court’s ruling and declined to comment further.

Analysts said that the verdict could compel YouTube to make the song unavailable in Hong Kong. It could also force Google to ensure that videos about “Glory to Hong Kong” are no longer listed in search results.

Lokman Tsui, a research fellow in Amsterdam with The Citizen Lab, a cybersecurity watchdog group, said the court was wrong to describe the song as a legitimate threat to national security.

“For speech to be censored or infringed on national security grounds, you have to be able to demonstrate intent and harm, and that the remedies you propose are the least restrictive,” said Mr. Tsui, the former head of free expression for Asia and the Pacific at Google. He added that he did not consider the evidence presented as legitimate national security threats.

After Google declined a public request by the government to remove the song in December 2022, Hong Kong’s security chief called the company’s decision “unthinkable.”

Like most tech companies, Google has a policy of removing or restricting access to material that is deemed illegal by a court in certain countries or places.

In recent years, requests to tech companies by the Hong Kong authorities to remove content have soared. But the internet in the city, in contrast to mainland China, has remained largely free of government control.

Facebook and Twitter were blocked from mainland China in 2009. A year later, Google shut down its China services and rerouted users to its search engine in Hong Kong, then a bastion of political freedom on Chinese soil.

The Asia Internet Coalition, an association representing companies including Google, X, Apple, and Meta on internet policy, said that it would assess how the ruling was carried out and its impact on businesses.

“We believe that a free and open internet is fundamental to the city’s ambitions to become an international technology and innovation hub,” Jeff Paine, the managing director of the association, said in a statement.

George Chen, a co-chair of digital practice at the Asia Group, a consulting firm in Washington, said he hoped the government would narrowly define the boundaries of the ban. Mr. Chen is the former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta.

“If the scope is too broad, the chilling effects will become more real, and that will hurt the reputation of Hong Kong as a regional business hub,” he said.

Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.

Tiffany May is a reporter based in Hong Kong, covering the politics, business and culture of the city and the broader region. More about Tiffany May

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