HONG KONG — The glossy pamphlet from the police, delivered to newsrooms in Hong Kong, declared: “Know the Facts: Rumors and Lies Can Never Be Right.” With it was a letter addressed to editors, decrying the “wicked and slanderous attacks” against the police.
The 12-page magazine, distributed Wednesday to news outlets including The New York Times, described the police’s efforts to push back against misinformation. In one instance, the department countered rumors that officers had attended a banquet with gang members, saying the police had held their own private dinner. In another, it accused a local TV station of smearing the police in a parody show.
“Fake news is highly destructive,” read one graphic carrying the hashtag #youarewhatyousend.
Officials in Hong Kong are increasingly seizing on the label of “fake news,” a common authoritarian refrain. The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said on Wednesday that the government was looking at laws to tackle “misinformation, hatred and lies.” The city’s police chief has said a fake-news law would help fight threats to national security.
The rhetoric is raising fears among activists that the label could be used as a new tool to muzzle dissent.
The authorities have moved swiftly to quash the opposition in Hong Kong since antigovernment protests engulfed the city in 2019, using a sweeping national security law to arrest most of the city’s leading opposition figures. On Thursday, a court sentenced a prominent activist, Joshua Wong, to another ten months in prison, on top of previous sentences for unauthorized assembly of 17 and a half months.
The city’s traditionally unfettered news media, known for coverage that has been critical of the establishment, has been under attack for months. The national security law, which calls for increased regulation of the media, has given the police and local officials powerful tools to constrain the press, but they are seeking more.
Mrs. Lam, the city’s chief executive, has said that the government was exploring legislation to curb fake news, which she said spread online during the protests and the pandemic.
“We have seen the internet, especially social media, flooded with doxxing, hateful and discriminatory remarks and fake news,” she said in remarks to lawmakers in February. Mrs. Lam has said that the proposed legislation had yet to be drafted because the government was still examining how such laws were handled elsewhere.
Like elsewhere, fake reports online can sometimes be an issue in Hong Kong. Last year, rumors of shortages drove the hoarding of toilet paper and other supplies. Unsubstantiated reports of deaths in a subway station circulated for months in 2019 after police attacked protesters with pepper spray and batons.
In Asia, countries such as Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia have passed laws in recent years to curb fake news. While those governments have described the legislation as important to prevent falsehoods leading to threats to public safety and national security, critics say they have been used to stifle dissent.
In Hong Kong, media freedom…