A Hong Kong court has refused to lift reporting restrictions on the bail proceedings for 47 pro-democracy figures facing one count of “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Chief Magistrate Victor So ruled on Thursday that the high-profile case shall remain subject to the rules set out in section 9P of the Criminal Procedures Ordinance. The decision came after some media outlets filed an application on Wednesday for the restrictions to be waived, as dozens of journalists flocked to the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts to cover the city’s biggest national security case yet.

West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts
West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The provision limits written and broadcast reports to only include the result of a bail proceedings, the name of the person applying for bail and their representation, and the offence concerned. Journalists may also mention the names of the court and the magistrate or judge handling the case, as well as the date and place to which a bail proceeding is adjourned.

If a report was published or broadcast in violation of the rules, the publication’s proprietor, editor, publisher or distributor shall be guilty of an offence. If convicted, they could face a fine of HK$50,000 and six months behind bars.

Open justice plea

During Thursday’s hearing, the defence proposed a set of relaxed reporting rules, saying public justice meant open justice. Barrister David Ma, representing Sai Kung District Council chair Ben Chung, said an open, fair and transparent trial was the “cornerstone of the rule of law.”

He then cited Article 4 of the national security law, which states that freedom of speech and press freedom are respected under the legislation, which was enacted by Beijing last June to outlaw secession, subversion, acts of terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

Police holding up warning flags
Police holding up warning flags warning people outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building that they might be violating the national security law and participating in an illegal assembly. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“Lifting the restrictions could strengthen the public’s understanding and the promotion of the national security law,” Ma said.

The defence went on to say that most information contained in the prosecution’s allegations was public knowledge already, but they suggested keeping arguments in court off limits.

But the chief magistrate questioned how the general public or the press could determine whether a statement made in court fell under the scope of “legal argument,” saying citizens may accidentally breach the restrictions: “It is a bit dangerous for them,” So said.

Senior counsel Hectar Pun later argued through another representative that many citizens had hoped to sit in the open hearing of the 47 democrats, but many were unable to attend owing to the large number of defendants and Covid-19 restrictions: “If the media cannot report on this open hearing, then it will undermine the principle of open justice,” Pun’s representative said.

He also mentioned misinformation about the hearing being circulated online, as details about the defendants’ bail applications were leaked online despite the reporting restrictions. Lifting the rules would help disseminate the “correct information” about the case, he argued.

Exiled activist Baggio Leung – who is based in the US – posted on Facebook full minutes of the submissions made on Thursday morning, including information outside the ambit of the section 9P rule: “Catch me if you can,” the ousted lawmaker wrote.

NSL 47
People holding up a “five-one” hand sign outside the court on Monday, representing the protest slogan “five demands, not one less,” which is outlawed under the National Security Law. Photo: Joshua Kwan/United Social Press.

Restricted court information had been shared on Instagram and Twitter since the marathon hearing began on Monday. Some reporters HKFP spoke with on Thursday feared that such online leaks may result in a tightening of access to bail hearings.

The chief magistrate has adjourned the bail verdict to 7 pm.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.