Hong Kong’s High Court considered Whatsapp messages between democrat Claudia Mo and journalists from major international media organisations in its decision to deny her bail in mid-April.

Messages extracted from the former lawmaker’s Whatsapp account with reporters from the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and the BBC were cited in a judgment released on Friday. The messages were used by the prosecution to argue that Mo would continue to jeopardise the regions’ national security if granted bail.

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Claudia Mo holding a yellow umbrella. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Police had seized Mo’s mobile phone in January, when the force arrested 53 pro-democracy activists over their participation and organisation of the democrats’ legislative primary election last July.

During Mo’s bail hearing, the prosecution argued that the democrat had repeated “accusations of desperation and loss of human rights and freedom” in Hong Kong via messages to journalists.

“The new security law and the spate of arrests have worked as a scare tactic, probably fairly successfully – at sending a persistent political chill around the city,” one message cited from October 2020 to the Wall Street Journal read.

A former journalist and veteran lawmaker, Mo has been an outspoken critic of what democrats have described as Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s promised freedoms and autonomy.

‘Highly influential’

The judgment also referred to comments made by Mo during an election forum last June where she said she would focus on giving international interviews.

The prosecution submitted televised interviews with Bloomberg and Sky News from October 2019 to May 2020 during which Mo expressed support for the US’ Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and called Hong Kong a “lost city.”

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High Court. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The Department of Justice presented both interviews and Whatsapp comments as evidence the former lawmaker was “vocal and highly influential in both local and international platforms, and had always maintained close connection with the foreign diplomats of various countries.”

Mo’s counsel had argued that, if granted bail, she “would retire from politics and… not act or do any acts against national security.”

In her reasoning released on Friday, appointed national security law judge Esther Toh said she did not find enough evidence to satisfy the higher threshold for bail required in security law-related cases. “I consider that there are insufficient grounds for believing that the Applicant will not continue to commit acts endangering national security if bail is granted,” she wrote.

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Photo: GovHK.

Mo, 64, has remained in custody since late February, when she was charged with 46 others for alleged “conspiracy to commit subversion” in violation of Beijing’s sweeping national security law over the legislative primaries. She stepped down from the city’s legislature with the rest of the democratic camp last November in solidarity with four colleagues who had been ousted.

‘Threatening situation’

For some the move threatens to exacerbate already serious concerns from rights and journalists groups over the state of the city’s press freedom under Beijing’s sweeping national security law.

One of the city’s few remaining free democrats, Fernando Cheung, told HKFP the decision will mean fewer people will dare to continue speaking with international press.

“It creates a threatening situation that talking to foreign correspondents is becoming almost like a crime,” the former lawmaker said. “The result is that fewer and fewer people are willing to speak up and Hong Kong will disappear from the international media eventually.”

Beijing’s national security law imposed last June has been invoked to arrest over 107 people and charge 57. An overwhelming majority of those charged have been pro-democracy activists.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.