Hong Kong’s sedition offences should not be used to impose “political censorship,” a defence counsel has told a local court at the trial of five speech therapists who allegedly incited hatred against the authorities by printing storybooks about sheep and wolves.
District Judge Kwok Wai-kin on Wednesday heard closing arguments by lawyers defending Lorie Lai, Melody Yeung, Sidney Ng, Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho, who pleaded not guilty to conspiring to print, publish, distribute and display three books between June 2020 and July 2021 with seditious intention. The group were executive committee members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists at the time.
The defence argued that the children’s publications – alleged to be “indoctrinating” readers with separatism and inciting “anti-China sentiment” – had no seditious intention. They were only printed to recount what happened in Hong Kong, including the 2019 extradition bill protests, the detention of 12 Hong Kong fugitives by mainland Chinese authorities and a strike staged by local medics at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Representing Yeung, the union’s external vice-chief, Senior Counsel Robert Pang said the books “provided a narrative from one particular point of view,” and there could be “many other points of view.” Barrister Anson Wong, on the other hand, said the prosecution used an “erroneous” approach to interpret the books from a “radical” perspective. He said the messages conveyed were in fact “open-ended.”
“The whole prosecution case on the alleged seditious nature of the relevant publications… is built on its assumptions of what an extremely radical or cynical reader – as opposed to an ordinary reasonable one – would perceive from [the books],” said Wong, who represented the union’s secretary Sidney Ng.
Similar arguments were made by barrister Peter Wong on behalf of Lorie Lai, the union’s chairwoman. The lawyer said people with different backgrounds might form different subjective interpretations, and it was “impossible to draw a blanket conclusion” that all readers would form the same interpretation.
Wong also argued that the criticism of government made in the storybooks allowed people to “vent” their grievances. He said that, in society, people could hold and express dissenting views without attracting “draconian criminal liabilities,” and sedition offences should not be “inappropriately used” to impose political censorship.
“[Those opinions] may be both unpopular and unreasonable. But such expressions should not be labelled or stigmatised as criminal with exorbitant legal consequences simply because they involve dissent and political opposition to the government and authority,” he said.
The publications were thought to be a “useful and effective tool” to explain the political turmoil in Hong Kong to young children, Peter Wong quoted defendants Lai and Yeung as telling online radio station D100 in March last year. The pair said the books could help young readers develop critical thinking, he added.
The sedition offences covered in the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance could land the five defendants up to two years in prison if convicted. It is different from the Beijing-enacted national security law that came into force on June 30, 2020, which targets secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist activities.
Lead prosecutor Laura Ng earlier compared sedition to treason, citing a UK case more than a century old to say that it was a “crime against society.” She also said it could incite people to an insurrection, a rebellion or even a civil war.
Defence counsels told the court on Wednesday that the recently resurrected sedition law had “wide parameters” and “lacked clarity,” which created the potential for abuse or misuse to prosecute dissenting voices. Similar legislation was abolished or reformed in numerous jurisdictions, they said.
Counsel Anson Wong said that the ambit of seditious intention was “extremely wide” and could cover political criticism. Without an incitement of violence or insurrection against the authorities, the suppression of speech would amount to imposing “interference more than is necessary” on freedom of expression, he said.
“To say the least, such provisions could have a chilling effect on speech and writing,” Wong said quoting the New Zealand Law Commission.
Judge Kwok challenged Pang’s submission that people had the right to tell different narratives. He grilled the lawyer on whether the content of the storybooks was opinion or a representation of facts, and whether speech therapists had to distinguish one from another.
After examining numerous examples including the prevalence of security cameras in mainland China, Pang argued that, if people were not allowed to present an alternative narrative, “the truth may be hidden.”
The case was adjourned to July 30 for the court to hear remaining submissions from Samuel Chan and Fong Tsz-ho’s lawyers.