A Hong Kong court has ordered two veteran journalists who had links with the now-defunct non-profit news outlet Stand News to remain in custody after they were officially charged with allegedly conspiring to publish seditious publications.
Stand News’ former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, 52, was brought to West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Thursday afternoon after being detained by police overnight. His co-defendant, 34-year-old Patrick Lam – who recently stepped down the acting chief editor of the independent news source – did not make an appearance owing to health reasons.
They were among seven people arrested by the city’s national security police on Wednesday on suspicion of violating the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. The other arrestees included prominent barrister Margaret Ng, Cantopop singer Denise Ho, Christine Fang and Chow Tat-chi, who were former directors of Stand News. They were released on police bail in the late afternoon on Thursday without charge.
Chung’s wife, Chan Pui-man, a former senior executive of Apple Daily, was also reportedly arrested while in custody pending trial in a separate national security law case. Local media also cited sources as saying the police issued an arrest warrant for Tony Tsoi, one of the founders of Stand News who is based abroad.
According to the police charge sheet, Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited – which owns Stand News – as well as Chung and Lam stand accused of conspiring together, and with others, to publish or reproduce seditious publications.
The published materials were said to have an intention of bringing into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the central authorities or the HKSAR government, as well as the administration of justice. The publications also intended to raise discontent among the inhabitants of Hong Kong and to incite people to commit violence or to counsel disobedience to law, police alleged.
Police appeared to have spelled Chung’s name wrong twice in the document, as the former top news editor was called “Cheung Pui-kuen” on one occasion and named as “Chung Pui-keun” in another.
In refusing to grant bail to Chung and Lam, Acting Chief Magistrate Peter Law said he was not satisfied that there were sufficient grounds for believing that they would not continue to commit acts endangering national security if bail was extended.
This stricter standard for reviewing bail applications is stipulated in the national security law enacted by Beijing in June last year. But the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong ruled earlier this month that the stringent threshold may be applied to other offences which they deemed may endanger national security, including against those suspected of violating the anti-sedition law.
Representing Chung, barrister Steven Kwan said his client would forfeit his right to review his bail status every eight days. Lam’s lawyer, Olivia Tsang, told the court that Lam – who was absent from the hearing because he was hospitalised over high blood pressure – would also give up such a right. The 34-year-old will appear in court again on Friday morning to hear his charge in person.
The company sent no representative to Thursday’s hearing. Lead prosecutor Laura Ng said they had tried to notify the remaining company director Tony Tsoi to appear in court, but he was not in Hong Kong.
They also contacted the company’s administrative officer and an assistant chief editor on Thursday, but they refused to sign and accept the notice. The order was eventually served on an employee at the company’s office in Kwun Tong prior to the hearing.
The news outlet ceased operations on Wednesday afternoon as the authorities froze its assets totalling HK$61 million. It has also removed content from its website and social media platforms.
The case was adjourned to February 25, after the prosecution said police needed time to conduct further investigations and decide if more people will be prosecuted. She said the prosecution had sufficient evidence to press charges, but police obtained a large amount of new evidence during the newsroom raid on Wednesday, including six boxes of documents, 62 computer devices and 27 electronic devices. Officers also need time to look through Lam’s phone, she said.
Following Law’s ruling, some journalists and some Stand News staff who were laid off a day before began to sob inside the courtroom. As Chung was led away by corrections officers, some people chanted: “Hang in there!”
Around 40 ex-staff members of the pro-democracy news outlet gathered at the ground floor of the courthouse in Sham Shui Po to quietly discuss how to bid farewell to their former chief who would be transported away in a prison van. They later split into small groups of no more than four people to avoid breaching the Covid-19 public gathering restrictions.
When a corrections vehicle left the court building, some people ran towards the pavement and waved at the van with their phone torches turned on. Police warned people they could be in breach of the Covid-19 gathering rules, as they pointed bright flashlights at the crowd. Some people were also stopped by police officers who checked their identification documents.
Among the former staff members who tried to see Chung off was Lok, who requested a pseudonym out of fear of reprisals. He had spent less than a year working at the digital outlet, which was founded in December 2014.
Lok told HKFP that while he knew Stand News was “targeted” by the authorities, he did not expect the arrests of former senior executives and the closure of the media organisation to happen “so rapidly.”
“We expected this day to come, but it was unexpectedly quick. And when this day came, it was really difficult for us to accept and hard to calm our emotions,” he said.
Looking back on his days working at Stand News, Lok said the news organisation – funded by its readers – had provided a lot of freedom to its reporters. He said the company had little hierarchy and Chung had always told his staff to “embrace different voices” and make sure what they reported was “true.”
“Chung may look a bit unapproachable, but he was very willing to teach us [how to do reporting],” he recalled.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Ronson Chan, who was the deputy assignment editor of Stand News, told the press after the hearing that it is was “saddening” to see the court refusing bail to Chung and Lam. He said they would take care of the pair’s family and told them not to worry.
Under court reporting restrictions on bail proceedings, written and broadcast reports are limited to only include the result of a bail application, the name of the person applying for bail and their representation, and the offence concerned.
Law refused to lift reporting restrictions.
Incoming lawmakers voice support
On Thursday, Hong Kong’s lawmakers-elect, who won in the city’s first-ever “all patriots” legislative election held on December 19, threw their weight behind police operation against Stand News.
In a statement released by the largest pro-Beijing party, the DAB, 89 of 90 incoming legislators said journalistic work was not a “shield” for evading legal liability. They said they were concerned about how Stand News managed to sit on HK$61 million worth of assets and urged the force to look into the source and use of the funds.
“We believe that press freedom in Hong Kong is protected by law. As long as media workers and news organisations abide by Hong Kong laws, their work would not be affected. But if anyone or any organisation breaches the law, [they] must be sanctioned,” the statement read.
The joint letter was signed by all future lawmakers except Tik Chi-yuen, who described himself as “1:89” – to indicate that he is the only non-pro-establishment figure in the revamped legislature.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong also backed the “resolute” law enforcement by the city’s police. A spokesperson for the office said Stand News had been a “political organisation” that wore the “façade” as a media organisation. The digital outlet had repeatedly published articles to incite others to use violence and even separating the country, the office said, adding Stand News’ roundup was “self-inflicted.”
Press organisations and media watchdogs have decried the arrests, citing concerns about dwindling press freedom in the city.