Beijing's 'baleful influence' on Hong Kong's freedom of speech

Activists say jailing Umbrella Movement leaders shows how freedom of speech is being restricted in the city.

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    Beijing's 'baleful influence' on Hong Kong's freedom of speech
    Demonstrator hold yellow umbrellas in Hong Kong protesting against the extradition law amendments [James Wendlinger/Al Jazeera]

    Hong Kong - Hong Kong's jailing of four leaders of the "Umbrella Movement" has had a chilling effect on the city's freedom of speech, according to activists and human rights lawyers who added that people might be deterred from joining protests because of the harsh sentences.

    Four leading activists of the 2014 pro-democracy protests were sentenced to up to 16 months in jail while another four received suspended sentences or community service hours.

    Those sentenced included sitting legislators, professors and student activists who were convicted of public nuisance for their roles in the 79-day protests. 

    Hong Kong slipped three places to 73 in the latest Press Freedom Index by Reporters With Border (RSF).

    Beijing's "baleful influence" led to a decline in Hong Kong's press freedom, according to the RSF who released the rankings earlier this month. 

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    "This is the most difficult time in Hong Kong when it comes to our democracy fight since 1997," pro-democracy camp convener Claudia Mo told Al Jazeera, referring to the time when the British colonial government handed the city back to China.

    "That's because the [government] is using judicial means as political weapons to shut us down."

    Yellow umbrellas, that symbolise the 2014 mass demonstration, were once again unfurled in Sunday's protest, wherein 130,000 people marched to the city's parliament in opposition to the extradition law amendments, according to organiser estimates.

    If the amendments pass, Hong Kong would be allowed to send criminal suspects to China for trial.

    Push for social change

    Jeffrey Ngo, the chief researcher for the pro-democracy Demosisto party, termed the sentencing harsh given that the protests were peaceful and non-violent, adding that he was worried about the future development of Hong Kong's democratic movements.

    "Protest has always been the primary means to push forward social changes throughout history and around the world," said Ngo.

    "The power of the people is potentially very high, but only if they feel like participating in a way they would not face these unreasonable consequences, such as being sent to prison."

    Organiser estimated 130,000 people joined the demonstrations [James Wendlinger/Al Jazeera]


    The 2014 Occupy Central demonstrations were sparked by the Chinese government's political reform framework that ruled out universal suffrage for the semi-autonomous region.

    Tens of thousands of protesters camped out on the streets and blocked traffic in three key districts - Admiralty, Causeway Baand Mong Kok - for nearly three months. 

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    But in the eyes of judge Johnny Chan, the three movement cofounders were too "naive" to think that they could push for full democracy.

    "It is naive to suggest that a concession to introduce the form of universal suffrage advocated by the trio could be made by the government overnight with a click of fingers," Chan wrote in his 268-page verdict.

    "It is equally naive to suggest a mass protest of tens of thousands of people could be dispersed overnight even if a positive response were to come from the authorities."

    Despite the defence justifying the obstruction as a result of civil disobedience, Chan dismissed this argument in court. 

    "Civil disobedience does not constitute any defence to a criminal charge brought against a defendant," the verdict read . " Even if a defendant is prosecuted for an offence committed in the course of civil disobedience, civil disobedience is not a defence in law."

    'No regrets' 

    Chan stressed that he did not mean the defendants should give up their political beliefs or their political demands as they are not of the court's concern.

    "It is an apology that the members of the public rightly deserve from the defendants, but never received. "

    But activists who were not involved in the court case, said saying sorry was not the nature of civil disobedience.

    Mo, a sitting legislator, believes the movement cofounders should feel quite the opposite to what the judge suggested - be proud of standing at the front line of the protests.

    "We are talking about civil disobedience. It's all peaceful and non-violent," said Mo. "I regret very much [that] the court failed to take that into account altogether."

    Less than an hour before the prison term was handed down, the city's leader Carrie Lam arrived at Hong Kong's International Airport to depart for the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

    A reporter asked if she thought the sentencing could have a chilling effect on protests and assemblies in the future.

    "Since the handover, we can see whenever something big or small happen, a lot of citizens, organisations and legislator would make use of Hong Kong's freedom of expression to organise protests and assemblies," Lam replied. "I don't see such freedom has been undermined." 

    Human rights lawyer Chris Ng says 'freedom of expression' continues to decline in Hong Kong [James Wendlinger/Al Jazeera]

    But Chris Ng, a human rights lawyer and convener of Progress Lawyer Group, disagrees.

    "There are a lot of incidents showing that we do not enjoy freedom of expression as it used to be. We see that [freedom] continues to decline," said Ng, who was the legal counsel of a land rights activist in a protest five years ago.

    He pointed out that the line between "one country, two systems" - a constitutional principle formulated by China to allow Hong Kong to have its own laws - has become blurry.

    "It's obvious the governments in Hong Kong and the mainland emphasise too much one country, instead of two systems," he added. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News