Riot police in Mongkok on October 20. Photo: Asia Times

A proposed law in Hong Kong to ban insulting behavior against public officials, including law enforcement officers such as police, is expected to stir up a new round of debate after the anti-mask law was declared unconstitutional and ineffective.

The Security Bureau recently completed research on legislation to ban people from insulting public officials, Secretary for the Civil Service Joshua Law Chi-kong said in the Panel on Public Service in the Legislative Council on Monday.

Law said the Security Bureau would seek opinions from other government departments and take the study to the Department of Justice for consultation. He added that there was no timetable for the launch of this law.

Ann Chiang Lai-wan, a lawmaker with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing political group, urged the panel to discuss the law within this term of office which ends in July 2020. A lot of Hong Kong people had misused their freedom of speech to insult public officers, she said.

Chiang said the law would bring back the dignity of civil servants, including police officers.

The existing clauses in the Public Order Ordinance, including wilful obstruction of a police officer in the execution of their duties and violation of public order in public place, had already granted enough powers to the police to enforce the law on the streets, said Lam Cheuk-ting, a Democratic Party legislator.

Lam said a law to criminalize insults against police was unnecessary and would create more tension in society. He added that a lot of police were not punished for insulting local residents.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, a pro-establishment lawmaker from the New People’s Party and an Executive Council member, said she would decide whether to support the proposed law after more details were announced. Ip said she believed it would be impossible to pass this law in Legco within this term of office.

Ip, the former secretary for security, said in 2017 she disagreed with the suggestion of making insulting a police officer a crime as it would be difficult to implement such law under the common law system.

In March 2017, Lai Tung-kwok, the then Secretary for Security, spoke about the present law in a written statement answering questions raised by DAB lawmaker Elizabeth Quat, who urged the government to criminalize insults against the police.

Lai said there was existing legislation forbidding any person from cursing others, or to use obscene, offensive, revolting or annoying language, or to cause obstruction or unpleasantness to others in specified places, such as MTR stations, hospitals and airports.

However, he said the coverage of the legislation prohibiting acts of insulting public officers undertaking law enforcement duties was not comprehensive.

“Although the government has no plan to legislate against the act of insulting public officers enforcing the laws, we remain open on whether to legislate, and will explore its feasibility, and continue to listen to the views of all parties,” he said.

In November 2018, John Lee Ka-chiu, the current Secretary for Security, said in the Legislative Council’s Panel on Security that the Security Bureau had started research on a law prohibiting insults against public officers and been looking into foreign practices.

In February this year, the Junior Police Officers’ Association (JPOA), which represents 20,000 of the 30,000 police officers in Hong Kong, sent a letter urging the Secretary for the Civil Service to set up the law. Stephen Lo Wai-chung, the then Police Commissioner, said the law would help protect police officers.

Over the past six months, a lot of people had freely insulted and verbally bullied police officers on the streets, JPOA Chairman Lam Chi-wai was quoted as saying in a Wen Wei Po report on Tuesday. It was totally unacceptable that many black-shirted people had provoked police officers with abusive language, even though there were no clearance operations, Lam said.

Ma Chi-shing, chairman of the Government Employee Association, a sub-organization of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, said a law to criminalize insults against public officers was necessary as a lot of civil servants were scolded unreasonably by the public.

Leung Chau-ting, chairperson of the Federation of Civil Service Union, said such a law was unnecessary as civil servants were professional enough to handle verbal attacks. Leung said the legislation of such a law would deepen the conflicts between citizens and civil servants.

Icarus Wong, a spokesperson for the Civil Rights Observer, said citizens would be nice to civil servants if the government’s policies gained public support. Wong said he was worried that a law banning insults against public officers would be abused by police.

Since the Occupy Movement in 2014, Hong Kong police have been using “assaulting police officer” and “obstructing officer in execution of duty” from the Public Order Ordinance to control the peaceful crowds on the streets near some protest sites.

On November 30, 2014, a man surnamed Leung was subdued by police while he was walking with a crowd in Mongkok. He shouted “don’t push” at a police officer, and he and another man were pulled away by police commander Duncan McCosh and his team from the crowd.

Leung, who was arrested for “assaulting a police officer,” suffered a bone fracture in his arm and was poked in the eyes by police. While a video could prove him innocent, he tried to file a complaint against the police.

However, McCosh was the one who chaired an internal review of police conduct during the pro-democracy protests.

During the anti-extradition protests in the past six months, similar incidents happened many times, especially after the government invoked the emergency law to launch an anti-mask law on October 4.

The High Court ruled on November 18 that the mask ban was unconstitutional. In recent cases, some people were arrested after they talked back to police, while others were not arrested after cursing officers.

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