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Social media posts supporting Hong Kong poll candidates can land you in jail for 3 years, but relaxation of rules in sight

Government plans to loosen city’s strict rules on what constitutes an election advert

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 7:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 7:00am

Expressing support for a Hong Kong election candidate on social media would no longer be a criminal offence in future under a government plan to relax the city’s strict rules on what constitutes an election advert.

The proposal to loosen the restrictions received initial backing from members of Hong Kong’s legislature on Monday. Recent elections have seen more voters post comments and change their profile pictures to indicate voting preferences on social media.

However, under the existing regulatory framework, any form of publication on the internet to promote or prejudice a candidate is considered an election advertisement and therefore theoretically incurs campaigning expenses, even if not disseminated by the candidates or their teams.

Those expenses include electricity and internet access charges.

The rules allow only candidates and their expense agents to run adverts, and any third party disseminating related information can be charged for illegally incurring election expenses – an offence liable upon conviction to a fine of HK$200,000 and imprisonment for three years.

But the government is now recommending exemption from criminal liability for third parties – both individuals and groups – who publish “election adverts” on the internet. Who qualifies for the exemption, however, will be based on the type of expenses they incur.

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“Those who have incurred the cost of setting up and designing online platforms or making promotional videos would not be exempt,” Deputy Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Rosanna Law Shuk-pui said during a panel meeting at the Legislative Council on Monday. “Only electricity and internet access charges will be exempted.”

Lawmakers from both the rival camps in Legco largely agreed with the plan, yet some raised concerns and suggestions.

“I support it in principle. But how can we draw a line between casual web surfers and members of an electioneering team?” legislator Charles Mok, who represents the city’s information technology sector, said. “Relaxation is a good thing, but the problem is that third parties may confuse the public by issuing fake news.”

The government acknowledged there could be potential difficulties investigating cases of fake news, but said they would act upon any complaints.

Two other proposals were also put forward for electoral arrangements – one on the regulation of election surveys and another on shortening polling hours. These were met with a diverse range of views from lawmakers.

The government has launched a public consultation exercise on the three proposals. It will last until the end of the year.