Law professor Eric Cheung has revealed that former leader Leung Chun-ying has sent him legal letters in May accusing him of libel. He also said on Sunday that it was “deeply worrying” that Leung was suing news outlet Stand News and scholar Chung Kim-wah for libel.
The University of Hong Kong professor wrote in a lengthy Facebook post that the subject of Leung’s lawsuit – a commentary written by Chung and published on Stand News – would fall under the defence of “fair comment.”
“It seems you are not familiar with the defence of ‘fair comment’ in Hong Kong’s defamation law,” Cheung wrote. “Allow me to explain, and I hope when you understand, you can stop these unnecessary and groundless lawsuits and save money on legal letters.”
Leung formally filed suit against Stand News and Chung on Friday, claiming that the article and its accompanying graphic made “unfounded allegations that a close relationship existed between [Leung] and the triad society or the underworld.”
“Fair comment” is used as a defence in defamation, allowing opinion and criticism of public figures if it is in the public interest.
Cheung also disclosed that Leung sent him two letters in May accusing him of libel over comments he made about the ex-leader’s involvement in the UGL controversy.
Leung received what he described as a non-compete and non-poach payment of HK$50 million from Australian firm UGL after it acquired UK firm DTZ. Leung was DTZ’s director in 2011, before he ran for chief executive. The payments were made while Leung was in office and were not disclosed, though Leung denies wrongdoing.
Cheung did not offer a response or retract his comments at the time, but on Sunday he said he came forward because of the case filed against Stand News and Chung. According to Cheung, no formal legal proceedings have been filed against him yet.
“I’m worried whether my silence will let [Leung] think that this method of issuing letters will work, and silence scholars as a result… I am choosing to publicise the incident now and write to you directly, because it is my duty as a legal scholar when Hong Kong’s freedom of speech is under attack,” Cheung wrote.
“The laws of Hong Kong protect freedom of speech and thought. Citizens have the right to not accept the word of the government or its leaders, and to make comments and raise questions based on fact, which will not constitute defamation,” Cheung wrote.
He added that Leung, in his current capacity as vice-chair of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, should refrain from commenting in areas that may affect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. As for the UGL controversy, Cheung advised Leung to appear before the legislature to clarify the matter.
HKJA ‘deeply concerned’
The Hong Kong Journalists Association issued a statement last Friday expressing concern and regret over Leung’s lawsuit.
“We worry people holding official posts taking media outlets and writers of articles they carried to court, on the ground of defamation, will cause negative effects and consequences over the preservation of Hong Kong’s core values of [offering a] diversity of views and free debate,” the statement read.
Leung issued a response on Facebook later that evening, saying that he was suing Chung and Stand News because their article was factually inaccurate, and the incident had nothing to do with airing a diversity of views.