You may find this as puzzling as I do, but the one thing which really seems to annoy our national security enthusiasts is when an organisation that has been roundly denounced on all channels decides to shut down before the cops come to the door.

The Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

This invariably produces accusations of cowardice and dark warnings that closing the organisation will not protect it or its members from later prosecution.

It seems that political persecution is like bull-fighting. The victim is expected to stay on his feet and tottering forward until the matador has finished. This is not a clumsy way of producing a pile of stewing steak; it is art. If the bull is so inconsiderate as to expire while the man on horseback is still sticking a spear in the back of his neck, then the artistic impression is lacking and the sport is spoiled.

So it is not entirely surprising that the announcement that the Next media group’s listed arm, Next Digital, was seeking liquidation produced a lengthy statement from the Security Bureau denying that the campaign against Jimmy Lai and all his works had anything to do with this development.

On this I have no comment. Buried in this diatribe, though, was an interesting paragraph. This was apparently intended to address the directors’ complaint that they still did not know exactly what Mr Lai and the sundry people and companies charged along with him were alleged to have done.

Said the bureau, “The prosecution case (covering acts, statements and articles alleged to be relevant to the charge) has already been stipulated clearly in the allegations submitted by the prosecution to the court in writing during the legal proceedings and supplied to the defendants. During the stage of mention hearing, the prosecution case will only be disclosed to the defendants (including their legal representatives) but not the general public. It is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings, so as to ensure that future hearing could be conducted fairly.”

Next Digital and Apple Daily’s office in Tseung Kwan O. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP

Now whether this is a reasonable answer to the directors’ problem I am not sure. Are they expected to visit Mr Lai in prison and ask him what he has been charged with?

What surprised me, though, was the suggestion that in the early hearings the prosecution case is not disclosed to the general public, and that this is the prevailing arrangement in criminal proceedings to ensure fairness in later trials.

To which one can only answer, “You must be kidding.”

True, the law is that, once a person has been arrested, the media may not inform the public of the detailed allegations against this person. There is a law of contempt of court which covers the period before the defendant appears in court, and there are statutory restrictions on the reporting of the ensuing proceedings. It is also true that these arrangements are intended to ensure fairness. It is not, however, true that these rules are observed as the “prevailing arrangement.”

To start with, they are not observed by Chinese officials, who routinely greet the arrest of anyone they disapprove of with speeches indicating not only that the miscreant is guilty as charged, but that he is also probably guilty of much else. These speeches are often extensively reported in Hong Kong even if they are made elsewhere.

Secondly, there are similar breaches of the rules in China’s Hong Kong-based state media. Ta Kung Pao and its stable mates do not apparently regard themselves as covered by this part of the law. This is irritating but of little practical effect because few people read those papers and fewer still believe what they say on topics of this kind.

But violations have now become routine. Consider some recent cases.

There was a traffic accident in Tai Po in which a taxi drove into a pedestrian refuge. Several people were injured, of whom two later died. There was much media interest, understandable because one person was trapped under the taxi and was rescued by the united efforts of passing strangers, who lifted the taxi off him.

The taxi driver was charged immediately with causing death by dangerous driving, the routine police response to a fatal road accident. This did not stop newspapers from reporting his name and giving extensive details of what was supposed to have happened. One newspaper even included three paragraphs of comment from an “expert” who had apparently viewed the video and thought the taxi driver had been guilty of “crazy driving.”

File photo: GovHK.

Another case concerned a man accused of sex offences with juveniles. Again his surname, age and occupation were provided, along with a good deal of personal history and much detail surrounding the offences. This included suggestions that he had been guilty of other offences.

A third case involved a barrister, two solicitors and some other people accused of a scam involving Urban Renewal Authority flats. Again, lavish detail was provided, including the names of the lawyers. The barrister has an unusual surname and I have no doubt the legal fraternity in its entirety now knows who he is and has been exposed to a one-sided version of the points to be decided at trial.

The latest case concerned a man accused of harassing judges with spurious phone calls and faxes. Once again we were told his age, occupation and surname, along with a detailed exposition of what will presumably become the prosecution’s case. In this case we do not have to wonder who was providing the information, because it was not the usual anonymous police source, it was Acting Superintendent Tse Tsz-kwan, who also offered some of the suspect’s previous convictions, which are not supposed to feature in early proceedings.

High Court. Photo: GovHK.

Interestingly Supt Tse was joined in this story by District Judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi. I hope Judge Chan did not realise that the identity of the perpetrator was going to be revealed when he said that “the perpetrator has committed several offences, including harassing judicial officers, contempt of court and perverting the course of justice.” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Clearly it is no longer the case that political offenders alone cannot depend on the right to a fair trial. The parts of the law intended to ensure fairness have been neglected for so long that no offender is safe, and it would be more accurate to say that no defendant in Hong Kong can rely on protection from a wave of prejudicial publicity, much of it emanating from police sources.

Still, you political offenders should be good sports. Do not flee, do not dissolve your subversive organisation, and deny everything right up to the last minute. The jury may then be graciously disposed to award the prosecutor both ears and the tail.

HKFP is an impartial platform & does not necessarily share the views of opinion writers or advertisers. HKFP presents a diversity of views & regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us. Press freedom is guaranteed under the Basic Law, security law, Bill of Rights and Chinese constitution. Opinion pieces aim to point out errors or defects in the government, law or policies, or aim to suggest ideas or alterations via legal means without an intention of hatred, discontent or hostility against the authorities or other communities.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.