A duty on both sides in any protest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2012, 12:00am


The question of whether police have toughened their stance in response to rowdier protests is a matter of public concern. Some view the actions taken by officers to be an unacceptable breach of the right to protest. Others want to see a tough line taken with demonstrators who adopt a confrontational approach. The opposing views underline the need to ensure that the right balance is struck. Protests should be orderly and peaceful. Curbs on protesters should not go beyond what is strictly necessary to maintain law and order.

Figures released in a recent press conference by the police showing the number of protest-related arrests and prosecutions have shed some light on the situation. Last year 440 protesters were arrested, up from 57 in 2010, of which 46 were charged with an offence, compared with 15 in the previous year. The figures are in line with those compiled by the Civil Human Rights Front and released earlier. While the police deny getting tough on the protests, the activists see the nearly eightfold increase in arrests as evidence of political suppression.

The surge is related to three large-scale protests - involving the budget, the June 4 anniversary and the July 1 march - in which 397 people were arrested. There is clear evidence that some of those who took part in the protests did not follow the Hong Kong tradition of keeping public demonstrations peaceful and orderly. But the scale of arrests is a cause for concern. That almost nine in 10 have not been charged naturally fuels doubts as to whether the arrests were justified.

Both protesters and the police have to show restraint when exercising their rights and duties. The police chief has pledged to respect civil liberties. It is important that he is seen to be doing so. Protesters should also reflect on their approach. There is a clear line between peaceful demonstration and violence. Most of the 6,878 protests last year were peaceful and orderly. There is no reason why the others could not be staged within the law.