Hong Kong bloggers could be affected by rumour law, experts warn

Legal experts warn that those who use weibo and violate rules could be detained in mainland

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 8:37am

Microbloggers in Hong Kong could also fall under the mainland's new rules on internet rumours if Beijing considers their posts "seriously prejudicial to national interests", legal experts warn.

The mainland's judicial authorities recently declared that anyone who posts an online message deemed to be defamatory and forwarded more than 500 times or viewed more than 5,000 times could be jailed for up to three years.

Hong Kong has its own legal system and enjoys judicial independence. However, legal experts in the city and on the mainland warn that people in the city who use mainland sites to post microblogs, known as weibo in Chinese, could still face the legal consequences.

While mainland police can't make an arrest in the city and there is no extradition between the two sides, people who post "libellous messages" could be detained and charged if they cross the border, said Professor Dong Likun, a senior research fellow at the mainland-based Institute of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, a think tank under the State Council's Development Research Centre.

"If the weibo posts in Hong Kong disseminate false remarks with malicious intention and cause serious damage to the rights of the mainland [government], the mainland [government], as a victim, can sue the person [in Hong Kong] according to the damage," he said.

Alternatively, the mainland government "can take legal action under the mainland laws once the person is found to be on the mainland".

Dong said both options were complicated and would only be used in "very exceptional cases".

Professor Zhao Yun, director of the Centre for Chinese Law at the University of Hong Kong, said as long as the person who posts the offending message stayed in the city he would most likely be safe from the reach of mainland law enforcement agencies. Also, the national security provision in Article 23 of the Basic Law has never been enacted, so making an arrest locally would be nearly impossible.

He also said he believed mainland authorities would adopt a more lenient threshold against Hong Kong residents when it came to applying the new rules.

Weibo have become increasingly popular in the city. Sina Weibo has 2.5 million Hong Kong users, according to a company report released this year.

Because many Hong Kong weibo users have amassed a strong following on the mainland, some microbloggers in the city are concerned about the possible effects of the new law.

One veteran mainland journalist based in Hong Kong whose Weibo account has attracted a million followers said: "I hope I can survive in this tense environment." He refused to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Professor Chow Po-chung, who teaches political philosophy at Chinese University and has 54,000 followers on Weibo, said he would start to worry if an influential blogger was detained.

Praising the site as the only way he could communicate with mainlanders, Chow said he had observed a "quieter" online climate since the the new rules were issued on September 6.

But he noted that Weibo "has always had a lot of censorship".