A Hong Kong court on Friday acknowledged the importance of press freedom and exempted journalists from a ban recently granted to police on publishing officers’ personal details to combat doxxing amid the ongoing anti-government protests.
Noting the increasing number of politically charged cases in court, Mr Justice Russell Coleman also said the duty of judges was to give a legal answer, and that the city’s independent judiciary did not need to be instructed by anyone on how to do its job.
The High Court judge ruled in favour of the press in its application for an exemption after hearing about the “chilling effect” of the ban, despite police objections that granting such an exemption – even for lawful reporting of officers’ personal details – could lead to doxxing.
Coleman said he had struck a balance between the need to protect police officers and their families and press freedom.
“Lawful reporting and freedom of the press are important to Hong Kong,” he said, before urging the media to uphold their journalistic standards.
Press bodies and legal scholars expressed concerns after the High Court two weeks ago granted an injunction order sought by police to bar anyone from publishing personal details of officers and their families, including names and photographs.
Since the protests began in early June, many, including police officers, protesters and journalists, have been subject to doxxing, the malicious display of their personal details online, which often leads to further harassment.
While police had said the injunction order they sought was not meant to target journalists, the lack of clarity prompted the Hong Kong Journalists Association to file an application to seek an exemption for those conducting “news activities”.
Coleman made several remarks on doxxing attacks and the judiciary’s functions as he granted the exemption.
The judge, who earlier granted another injunction order to ban online comments inciting violence, noted there had been suggestions that police had engaged in improper acts. But he said those opinions could not justify doxxing, adding: “Two wrongs do not make a right.”
He noted that inevitably, political problems would come before the court every now and then and when they did, the court’s duty was to give a legal answer.
No one, he said, should tell judges how to perform their roles because it was guaranteed under the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, that Hong Kong would have an independent judiciary.
The remarks came just two days after Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, Beijing’s top leader overseeing the city’s affairs, called on the executive, legislature and judiciary to end the turmoil.
Before Coleman handed down his decision, barrister Jin Pao SC, for the association, argued that while police claimed the order would not affect journalists, it was actually a blanket ban. “Taken to an extreme, the press could not even publish the name of the commissioner or the police,” he said.
The order barred anyone from “intimidating, molesting, harassing, threatening, pestering or interfering with” police officers and their families.
“[Journalists] would not be doing their jobs if they were not persistent, if they did not get to the bottom of a story, and if they took the first no for an answer,” he said.
“[Police] are trying, we suggest, to create the chilling effect we want to avoid.”
Coleman also ordered the word “interfering” to be removed from the order, saying it was vague.
Jonathan Chang, for police and the secretary for justice, countered, saying there was no need for reporters to identity police officers to do their reporting.
Some, he added, had been suggesting the press needed to identify police officers to hold them accountable. “This is exactly what we are trying to avoid. They should not be tried by the public ... without due process,” he said.
Chang argued that “in the current climate”, even lawful reporting could become a source of doxxing. He said fake reporters could exploit the loophole.
But Coleman said fake reporters would not be protected by the exemption in the first place.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing welcomed the court’s decision. “It affirms the importance of the media as a watchdog,” he said.
Lawyer Michael Vidler, who brought the case, said it was not an attempt to prevent police from seeking the protection they needed. It was only to clarify areas where the press could find themselves in trouble, he said.
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