Two sides to the right to protest

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:24am

Hong Kong is arguably the best example of how the right to demonstrate is exercised to the fullest under Chinese rule. With protest figures reaching thousands each year, hardly a day goes by without someone taking to the street. Thankfully, the demonstrators are largely law-abiding. Police officers also try their best to facilitate proceedings while maintaining law and order. Our good record owes much to the co-operation of both sides.

However, this fine tradition has been put to the test recently. On one hand, confrontational tactics are being used more often by some protesters. On the other, there is a growing perception that the police have become less tolerant, so much so that there are concerns that protests are being suppressed. According to police figures, 45 people were prosecuted last year under the Public Order Ordinance, which carries heavier penalties than other laws previously used against protesters. There were just 39 prosecutions between 1997 and 2010.

The number of prosecutions is small when compared with the 6,878 public meetings and processions that were held last year. However, if the rise in prosecutions is a result of a change in policy to use the harsher law, it is a cause for concern.

Police chief Andy Tsang Wai-hung has dismissed claims that prosecutions involved political consideration. The Department of Justice has also said decisions to prosecute were made independently, based on a reasonable prospect of conviction, assessment of evidence and public interest. So far there is no evidence to conclude the force has tightened control. But the trend inevitably worries protesters.

There appears to be nothing wrong for the police to consult district councils more on the route of demonstration, a move they say will help reduce the impact on neighbourhoods. But since most councils are dominated by pro-establishment members, worries of freedom of assembly being suppressed are therefore understandable. Tsang said he respected the aspirations of demonstrators. He will be judged not only by his words, but also how they are put into practice.

Our fine tradition of peaceful protests cannot be maintained unless both sides exercise their rights and duties in a measured and responsible way. Protesters cannot infringe public order when exercising the right to demonstrate. Likewise, law enforcers are required to respect human rights and facilitate the exercise of people's constitutional rights.