Hong Kong: National anthem football arrests are an attack on freedom of expression

Responding to the arrests of three people accused of “insulting” China’s national anthem by turning their backs to the field and failing to stand up when it was played at a football match in Hong Kong, Amnesty International’s China Director Sarah Brooks said:

“Once again in Hong Kong, a thoroughly peaceful act of protest is met with a heavy-handed police response via a repressive law – in this case the National Anthem Law – designed to muzzle freedom of expression.

“These arrests are the latest in a string of incidents that increasingly depict Hong Kong as a police state, where residents are closely monitored for even the most miniscule sign of dissent and then punished heavily. 

“People’s right to express feelings about national anthems and other state symbols is well protected by international human rights law. Yet in Hong Kong, to ‘insult’ China’s national anthem is a crime, even if it involves the simple act of remaining seated.

“Those arrested for ‘insulting’ China’s national anthem have been targeted solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and the case against them should be dropped immediately.”

Background

Police reportedly said three people were arrested at Hong Kong’s World Cup qualifying match against Iran on Thursday evening because they “turned their backs toward the pitch and did not stand for the playing of the national anthem”.

Local media reported that plainclothes police officers were observing spectators and filming them as the Chinese national anthem was played at Hong Kong Stadium.

Hong Kong’s National Anthem Law, passed in 2020, criminalizes perceived “insults” to China’s national anthem, punishable by up to three years in prison. All those arrested on Thursday have been released on bail, pending investigation.

Several people have been targeted for their peaceful activism in Hong Kong in recent weeks, including four people arrested on the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown on 4 June, and eight who were arrested for “sedition” under the city’s new Article 23 law for peacefully commemorating the crackdown ahead of the anniversary.

Under international human rights law, freedom of expression can protect ideas and speech that some may find offensive if they are not intended or likely to incite imminent violence. International human rights standards make clear that peaceful criticism of, or insult to, the nation or its symbols, even if offensive, does not constitute a threat to national security or justify prohibition on other grounds.

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Sport has the potential to be a catalyst for human development, unity, and freedom, but too often it instead brings harm to its athletes, fans, and communities. We exist to uncover and rectify the many abuses that exist both in and around sport. We aim to transform sports into an authentic force for good.