Ban on wearing masks at protests “thoroughly chilling”

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Hong Kong government wields emergency law to ban mask-wearing and facial covering at public assemblies.

Photo: Protester in London wears a hard hat with “Free Hong Kong” written on it and a mask. Credit to Samantha Sun.

The Hong Kong government has confirmed today (Friday, 4 October) that it will implement an anti-mask law prohibiting people from wearing facial coverings during public gatherings, with exception to those who require one for medical reasons. It has been enacted under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) that gives the Chief Executive sweeping powers. The law comes into effect as of midnight on 5 October.

Many comparisons have been made to a law the Canadian government passed in 2013. The controversial Canadian Bill C-309 bans anyone attending a riot or unlawful assembly from concealing their faces or disguising their identities. Those charged could face a fine of $5,000 or up to 10 years in prison. This law came as a response to a number of high-profile riots such as those that occurred following the 2012 Stanley Cup in Vancouver and during the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto. The law has been enforced since its legislation; for example, there were two separate incidents in Iqaluit and Saskatchewan prisons where groups of masked inmates incited riots.

Unlike the Canadian law, the new Hong Kong government ban would apply to all public assemblies, lawful or not. Aside from the safety purpose of wearing a mask to protect from pepper spray and tear gas, protesters have used facial coverings to prevent being identified by Hong Kong’s Facial Recognition technology in fear of persecution. Prior to the government confirming the bill’s implementation, Ray Walsh (Digital Privacy Expert at stated that the ability for law enforcement to “track down dissidents and prosecute them once…violent protests come to an end” would be “[a] thoroughly chilling prospect.”

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