Journalists will now be allowed to report details of past court proceedings in the national security case against 47 pro-democracy figures, a local magistrate has ruled. The judgement came after a higher court quashed a decision to enforce the reporting ban on a separate subversion case under the Beijing-imposed security legislation.
Principal Magistrate Peter Law on Thursday lifted reporting restrictions on the months-long procedure to commit the large number of well-known democrats to the High Court. They could face up to life imprisonment if convicted of conspiring to commit subversion in connection with an unofficial legislative primary election held in July 2020.
Thursday’s hearing marked the last time the city’s largest national security case would be heard at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts, as the 47 defendants – most of whom have been held in custody for almost 18 months pending trial – have already entered their pleas and are set to be sentenced or stand trial at the High Court.
Law previously refused requests to lift reporting restrictions set out in section 87A of the Magistrates Ordinance. He had said news reports of the committal proceedings may prompt “negative comments” from the public and the trial may be “jeopardised.”
But Law, the principal magistrate at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts approved the latest request from former district councillor Tiffany Yuen, ex-Stand News journalist Gwyneth Ho and activists Ventus Lau and Gordon Ng.
Earlier this month the High Court ruled in favour of activist Chow Hang-tung, who challenged Law’s decision to retain reporting restrictions in her separate national security case. The landmark ruling by High Court Judge Alex Lee stated that magistrates had no say in whether to lift reporting restrictions on committal proceedings if the accused had applied to do so.
Since the case of the 47 democrats’ case entered the committal stage in July last year, news reports of hearings have been brief. Unless restrictions are lifted, written and broadcast reports are limited to including only the names of the defendants, magistrates, and lawyers, the alleged offence, the court’s decision, whether legal aid was granted, and future court dates.
Law said on Thursday that lifting the reporting ban meant that all details heard in court since the first return day last year could be included in news reports. But he did not give a direct answer to defendant Ng, who asked whether the transcript of his preliminary inquiry hearing, which was conducted behind closed doors last month, could be reported.
Ng urged the court to clarify if there would be any legal consequences for people who disclosed the details of the transcript. “I’m a law-abiding person, I don’t wish to break the law. If there is some ambiguity in the law and we end up breaking the law, that’s not what I want,” he said.
Both Law and lead prosecutor Andy Lo said it would be “inappropriate” for Law to give a defendant legal advice, adding that Ng should seek it on his own.
Journalist-turned-activist Ho pressed Law to give Ng a direct answer, asking whether the Department of Justice would press charges against journalists if they got hold of the transcript of Ng’s preliminary inquiry.
Without addressing Ho’s questions, Law ended the hearing and said: “We are done for today.”
Secretary for Justice Paul Lam recently ordered a non-jury trial for the case, citing the “involvement of foreign elements” as a reason to depart from the common law tradition of trial by jury. The notice also mentioned concerns over the “personal safety of jurors and their family members” and a “risk of perverting the course of justice if the trial is conducted with a jury”.
Activist Owen Chow, one of the 15 defendants present at Thursday’s hearing, expressed discontent at the arrangement before he was led out of the dock by corrections officers.
“A trial without a jury is unjust!” Chow shouted.