Press freedom in Hong Kong has been facing a chilling blow in the past few years, according to the United Kingdom government and Reporters Without Borders. Three pro-democracy news outlets winded up in just eight months during mid-2021 to early-2022. Despite the charges and sentences that some journalists are facing, the SAR government has insisted that they still respect press freedom, which is promised by the Basic Law.
The now-defunct Hong Kong news outlet Stand News ceased operations in December 2021, after police raided their office and arrested seven people, including its then and former executives. Its parent company Best Pencil Limited, former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and former acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam were accused of conspiring to publish seditious publications. Chung completed his 36-day testimony in April 2023, while Lam chose not to testify in court. The trial, which began on October 31, 2022, has lasted for 52 days, more than double of the originally scheduled 20 days. The defence and prosecution will deliver their closing arguments on June 19-21, 2023.
The outlet and journalists were accused of publishing 17 allegedly “seditious” articles dated between July 2020 and December 2021. Topics covered include the social unrest in 2019, the pro-democracy pre-election primaries in 2020, and the National Security Law enacted in 2020.
The case has received a high degree of attention from the media and public, not only because of the long trial, but also because of some apparently biased assumptions made by the prosecutor, and the large amount of evidence that the prosecutor presented only after the trial began. Here are some important or widely reported moments during the trial:
October 31, 2022 (First day of trial): Lam and Chung pleaded not guilty to conspiring to publish seditious publications. Defense counsel Audrey Eu argued that 10 of the 17 articles presented as evidence were not published within six months ahead of the prosecution process, which is a requirement of the law. Prosecutor Laura Ng, however, insisted that those articles could prove that the defendants were continuously publishing seditious materials.
January 27, 2023: Prosecutor Laura Ng said each business card of Stand News employees contains a different Chinese quote. One of them wrote “sparks of fire” (星星之火), which Ng said she “would definitely associate with” Spark Alliance, a fund set up in 2016 to assist those arrested in social movements. This caused an uproar from the public gallery, while Chung said he was shocked to hear the association.
February 3, 2023: The prosecutor presented an additional 400 pages of documents and a 45-page timeline to “assist Chung in understanding the social context when the case happened”. Defense counsel said these documents should have been presented much earlier, adding that “too many unfair situations and sudden attacks” have occurred during the trial. Despite objection from the defense, Judge Kwok Wai-kin permitted the prosecutor to use those documents when examining Chung.
March 23, 2023: Prosecutor Laura Ng quoted BBC’s editorial guideline which advises reporters to “fairly represent opposing viewpoints when included”. But in her Chinese translation, Ng interpreted it as “fairly include opposing viewpoints”. Her translation was immediately challenged by Chung.
When personal view programmes and websites (for example, blogs) cover ‘controversial subjects’, especially those concerning matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy, we should:
- retain a respect for factual accuracy
- fairly represent opposing viewpoints when included
-BBC Editorial Guidelines
March 30, 2023: Defense counsel Audrey Eu started re-examining Chung. Prior to that, the prosecutor presented 300 more pages of documents to the court. Eu complained that the prosecutor kept repeating similar questions during examination, which means she had to finish the re-examination in a very limited time, which is in Eu’s words “a very challenging mission”.
April 3, 2023: The prosecutor argued that Stand News “promoted” pro-democracy activist Nathan Law by interviewing him right after he fled, saying the outlet “closely followed” Law. But this claim was rejected by defence counsel Audrey Eu, who said Stand News was neither the first nor the sole local outlet to interview Law after he left Hong Kong.
The prosecutor also said adding Chinese subtitles to Law’s video interview was to make it accessible for viewers who do not understand Cantonese, including those from Taiwan. Chung responded by saying that subtitling is just a usual practice.
Stand News was the second pro-democracy outlet to wind up following the enactment of the national security law (NSL) in June 2020. In June 2021, 500 police officers raided the headquarters of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily over allegations that several of its articles violated the NSL. This was followed by the freezing of the company’s assets and the arrest of six executives charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. Their boss, founder of the tabloid Jimmy Lai, had earlier been arrested with the same charge. All of them are currently remanded in custody while waiting for trial and sentencing.
In January 2022, just four days after Stand News was forced to cease operations, online news outlet Citizen News announced that they will be closing to “ensure everyone is safe in this time of crisis”. Its executives said the police operation on Stand News has triggered their decision to shut down.
(Featured Image: Celine Chan)