Macau security law must strike balance

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 October, 2008, 12:00am

Plans to enact national security laws in Macau will no doubt revive memories of the most contentious period in Hong Kong since the handover. Yet what is perhaps most striking about Macau's efforts is the remarkable lack of controversy. Like Hong Kong, Macau is required under its own Basic Law's Article 23 to legislate against treason, secession, sedition, subversion and theft of state secrets. But, unlike us, there has been little resistance to the proposed laws. There is little doubt that Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho Hau-wah will be able to complete legislation before he leaves office at the end of next year. However, he should not take this as a blank cheque.

Mr Ho has described the enactment of the draft law as 'a sacred duty'. But he and his government should know that they also have a profound responsibility to make sure fundamental freedoms are respected and that international norms are observed. Freedom of speech and expression must be upheld. Mr Ho said people would not get into trouble merely for expressing unconventional views or taking non-violent actions such as peaceful protests. It is up to Macau's lawmakers and its people to make sure the proposed laws turn out as he has promised.

In response, the Hong Kong government yesterday reaffirmed it had no plan to resume legislative work on Article 23. Such efforts were shelved five years ago after half a million people took to the streets in an unprecedented act of defiance. Officials say their main focus is currently on economic and livelihood issues. This is as it should be. There is a need to reassure the Hong Kong public when our economy is heading towards a downturn. A major controversy and legislative showdown over national security laws is the last thing our city needs at this moment. And, unlike Mr Ho, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen still has the luxury of time. Nevertheless it is clear that he, too, is under pressure to legislate Article 23 before his term is up in 2012. Our city also has a constitutional duty to enact national security laws, however long we try to avoid it. The issue may be delayed, but it has to be faced.

In tabling the draft law for public consultation, comparisons will inevitably be made between the Macau bill and ours. Though similar in key elements, Hong Kong's abandoned version contains provisions that offer some important safeguards against undue government interference, the results of more than 50 revisions fought for by legislators and other groups. In time, when we have to resume work on Article 23, these will provide a sound basis on which to strike a balance between guarantees for civil liberty and the demands of state security.

Some of these safeguards are, however, missing in Macau's draft law. For example, unlike the Hong Kong bill, there is no mention of 'public interest' as a defence for disclosing official secrets. Some offences are also vague enough to be open to abuse, such as the unintentional leaking of official secrets through a careless act. Macau has always taken a much tougher stance on law and order, and its government has been far less liberal than ours. It is unlikely that Macau lawmakers would demand numerous changes to the bill, nor would the Macau government accept them if they tried.

Whatever the final form Macau's Article 23 legislation takes, it will put pressure on us to follow suit. Hopefully, it should have as many liberal safeguards as politically feasible. But, regardless of the outcome in Macau, we must work to protect the freedoms we treasure while fulfilling our constitutional obligation.