Two-year window on anthem insults: Police get more time to prosecute offenders

Top News | Phoenix Un 10 Jan 2019

Police will be given two years to charge anyone who disrespects the national anthem under a proposed ordinance, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said yesterday.

So people who "insult" or misuse the anthem in public or on the internet could be prosecuted long after they are seen to have stepped out of line.

The Executive Council approved the bill on Tuesday, though the National People's Congress Standing Committee had put the mainland national anthem law into the Basic Law Annex III in 2017.

As expected, it prohibits people from publicly and intentionally altering the lyrics or score of the March of the Volunteers and playing and singing the anthem in a distorted or disrespectful way. Additionally, repeating an insult through publishing the gist of it is also prohibited.

All such offenses - like those relating to the National Flag and National Emblem Ordinance - can lead to three years in prison or a fine up to HK$50,000.

But there was a surprise in the delayed-action element - extending the prosecution time to 24 months after an alleged offense or 12 months after a supposed offense is discovered by the Commissioner of Police, whichever is the earlier.

Nip, speaking at government headquarters to introduce the bill, said the two-year provision struck a balance in law enforcement.

"There may be circumstances that involve many people committing an offense, and this would allow sufficient time for police to investigate and institute prosecution," he said.

For example, there could be cases involving unidentified people or the internet, so a period of, say, six months might not be enough.

Several laws, including the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance, also have prosecution periods longer than six months, Nip noted.

But he declined to offer examples of behavior that would constitute insults to the anthem as context would count in each case. He also warned that people should avoid quoting the anthem in creative works such as pop songs as that could be heard as an insult. The bill also sets out occasions when the national anthem should be played, including oath-taking by Legislative Council members.

Six legislators-elect have already lost their seats over the ways they took the oath, which has raised a concern that legislators could be ousted for not being present in the chamber or remaining silent when the anthem is played.

Nip confirmed that playing the anthem right before oaths are taken will be feature, but again he refused to say what types of behavior could lead to disqualification.

The bill also states that the secretary for education must give directions for the inclusion of the anthem in primary and secondary schools.

The bill will have its first and second readings on January 23, when it will be debated. Then it will go to the Bills Committee.

Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung Ngok-kiu said his party would be against the bill because of the extended period for charges to be laid and the idea that police can pick out people from the internet.

And party colleague Dennis Kwok Wing-hang said he has decided to run for the vice chairmanship of the Bills Committee.

Claudia Mo Man-ching, convener of the Democracy Camp Meetings, criticized Nip for intentionally keeping some details about the anthem law vague, especially in relation to how legislators could run foul of it and perhaps be disqualified over their actions when it is played. She saw that as a form of intimidation.

But Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said legislators should have nothing to worry about if they take the oath with sincerity.

And legislator Priscilla Leung Mei-fun of the Business and Professionals Alliance defended the extended prosecution period as crimes involving a crowd could pose difficulties in collecting evidence.

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