'Infected city' hoaxer likely to escape with a police warning

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2003, 12:00am

Spreading false information is not a crime under current law, says a legal expert

A 14-year-old schoolboy accused of sparking a public panic by posting a bogus Internet news item about Hong Kong's atypical pneumonia outbreak is likely to escape punishment because of his age and the lack of a law to cover such behaviour, lawyers said yesterday.

The Form Three student was arrested for allegedly gaining access to computers with criminal or dishonest intent after police traced him to his home in Wang Fuk Court, Tai Po, on Tuesday night.

The bogus news item - posted on the boy's own Web site using the Ming Pao logo - said Hong Kong had been declared an infected port, the Hang Seng Index had collapsed and Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa had resigned.

The hoax news item - issued on April Fool's Day - was somehow widely circulated and led to frantic calls between offices and homes all over Hong Kong, setting off panic buying at supermarkets and a rush on banks, forcing government officials to issue public assurances.

The teenager was released on $1,000 bail and ordered to report back to police in three weeks. No charges have been laid.

James To Kun-sun, a solicitor and the deputy chairman of the Legislative Council's security panel, said the incident appeared to be a prank, which was 'not illegal'.

He said the boy could still be charged with computer crime, for which he was arrested, or even disorderly behaviour in breach of the peace, which respectively carry a maximum penalty of five years and two years in jail - but the chances of the charges being substantiated in court were a different matter.

'The boy may have put the fake news report on his Web site, but it was people who visited his site who spread the false messages. He didn't seem to have spread the message himself and he didn't put out 'Please disseminate as soon as possible' or any such statement,' Mr To said.

Spreading false information was not a crime under any current law, he said.

In the mid-1980s, the colonial government criminalised the spread of false information under the Crimes Ordinance, but an outcry over freedom of speech eventually led to the law being scrapped.

'Even if I take out the entire front page of a newspaper to announce al-Qaeda terrorists are spreading the pneumonia virus, and cause a public panic, I have not committed a crime,'' Mr To said.

Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that to secure a conviction on the charge of computer crime, the prosecutor would have to show that the defendant had reasonably intended his action to cause a certain outcome.

'That is very difficult to prove in general, and in this case even more difficult to prove,'' he said. While children older than 10 could be charged with adult crimes, Mr Cheung said that given the boy's age, it was more likely he would be issued with a warning from the police and let off.

'You could either admit the facts of the case without pleading guilty and be bound over in court, or simply [without going to court] accept a police warning, which is likely and in this case, may be an appropriate outcome.'

The Commercial Crime Bureau said investigators were still studying whether and what charges might be laid against him.