Hong Kong court rejects government-requested ban on protest song ‘Glory to Hong Kong’

HONG KONG — A Hong Kong court rejected a government-requested ban on broadcasting or distributing the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong,” in a landmark decision that rejected a challenge to freedom of expression in the city.

The song was written during mass protests against the government in the Chinese territory in 2019 and its lyrics call for democracy and liberty. The song has since been mistakenly played at several international sporting events instead of China’s national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.”

Judge Anthony Chan on Friday refused to grant the ban, which would have targeted anyone who uses the song to advocate for the separation of Hong Kong from China. In seeking the court order, the government also sought to ban actions that use the song to incite others to commit secession and to insult the national anthem, including such acts carried out online.

Critics had said a ban would have a far-reaching impact on the city’s freedoms of expression and information, which have become increasingly threadbare under Beijing’s crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement. But some analysts cautioned the court’s refusal to grant the order would not mean foreign tech giants could let down their guard from now on, saying political challenges surrounding their operations in the financial hub still linger.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and was promised that it could keep its Western-style civil liberties intact for 50 years after the handover. But a Beijing-imposed National Security Law and other changes since the 2019 protests have shrunk the openness and freedoms that were once hallmarks of the city.

Chan said that the court considered whether an injunction would provide any greater deterrence than existing criminal law, and its potential chilling effect.

“I am unable to see a solid basis for believing that the invocation of the civil jurisdiction can assist in the enforcement of the law in question,” Chan said in the ruling.

The city’s secretary for justice sought the injunction last month after the song was mistakenly played as the city’s anthem at international events. And a mix-up in an ice hockey competition in February resulted in the city’s top sports body reprimanding the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Association, which appealed for forgiveness for what it called an “independent and unfortunate” event.

The Hong Kong government has tried to push Google to display China’s national anthem as the top result in searches for the city’s anthem instead of the song but to no avail.

Google told the government to present a court order proving the song violated local laws before it could be removed, according to Secretary for Innovation, Technology and Industry Sun Dong. The government, therefore, decided to deal with the matter by legal means, he said in an interview with a local broadcaster.

Google didn’t reply to a request for comment on its earlier exchanges with officials.

Friday’s ruling will not mean the end of the controversy for tech giants, said George Chen, former head of public policy for Greater China at Meta.

He said it was a new beginning for their platforms and the government to work together on content-related issues, given there was “zero chance” that the government would just leave all versions of the protest song online.

“Now the ball is back to the government but it doesn’t mean platforms can relax,” said Chen, who now works as a managing director for business advisory firm The Asia Group.

He said the city is now a “highly political place” and many lawmakers were surprised by the ruling, predicting that the political pressure on content removal on tech platforms will remain.

“It may feel more like Season 1 of a long series,” he said.

Eric Lai, visiting researcher of King’s College London’s School of Law, said that the government was trying to abuse the legal system by using a civil injunction to tackle a political matter when it sought the court order. The ruling reflects that the court still wants to defend the integrity of the city’s legal system, Lai said.

“Had this injunction been granted by the court, it would further create a more restrictive environment for both the internet and the public,” he said.

Lai cautioned that it’s a worrying trend to see that the secretary for justice “is so eager to politicize the court and the legal proceedings” to suppress the opposition camp and dissenting opinions, adding that he would monitor how the government would respond to the decision.

Chief Executive John Lee said at a media briefing he has already requested the department of justice to study the judgement and possible follow-up work.

“The threats brought by (acts) that endanger national security can come all of a sudden, so we must adopt effective measures to prevent, stop and punish such crimes and activities,” he said.

The government said the lyrics contain a slogan that could constitute a call for secession. The song was already banned at schools.

The government said that it respected freedoms protected by the city’s constitution, “but freedom of speech is not absolute.”

The 2019 protests were sparked by a proposed extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial. The government withdrew the bill, but the protesters widened their demands to include direct elections for the city’s leaders and police accountability.

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