The trial against the defunct online news outlet Stand News and its former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and former acting chief editor Patrick Lam began at Wan Chai District Court on Monday. The three defendants stand accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications.”
Chung and Lam entered their not guilty pleas before Judge Kwok Wai-kin, while Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited – Stand News’ parent company – did not have a representative present.
Representing Chung and Lam, former pro-democracy lawmaker and Senior Counsel Audrey Eu disagreed with the prosecution on how to interpret the colonial-era sedition law.
Even though the sedition law has been amended over the years, Eu said it remained at odds with some fundamental rights guaranteed by the Basic Law, such as freedom of expression.
She reminded the court that the responsibility of news outlets was to report, adding that “reporting a murderer doesn’t mean [the press] is in support of the murderer.” Hence, the prosecution should prove the defendants had seditious intent rather than simply judging from their actions.
“If the press were in danger of breaking the law whenever they criticised the government, then they might just as well just give up their jobs,” Eu told Kwok.
Prosecution time limit
The case was handed over to Kwok from another judge, Adriana Noelle Tse Ching, on Saturday, who informed the Judiciary she would not be able to attend the trial as she was still in quarantine, according to Kwok.
Having spent less than two days on the case, Kwok said he had not had time to read through all the documents submitted, adding that the defence and the prosecution could treat him as if “he knows nothing [about the case].”
Before hearing the opening statements from both sides, two legal disputes were put before Kwok, including whether a prosecution time limit applied to 17 articles submitted by prosecutors as evidence, and whether the prosecution should prove the defendants had demonstrated “seditious intent.”
Prosecutor Laura Ng said she relied on 17 articles published by Stand News from July 2020 to December 2021 as the basis of the accusation. However, citing the Criminal Ordinance, the defence argued that prosecution could only be made within six months of the alleged offence, meaning the prosecution period of 10 of the articles had expired.
Ng rebutted the claim, saying that even though some of the 17 articles were published six months before the closure of Stand News, they were “overt acts” of Chung and Lam and therefore should not be subject to the six-month time limit.
In response to Ng, Eu said that by that logic, many more articles published by Stand News could also be the “overt acts” of Chung and Lam, and it would be a “mockery” to the prosecution time limit established by law.
Kwok is expected to rule on the the admissibility of the articles on Tuesday.
About 20 former Stand News staff attended the hearing on Monday, waving to Chung and Lam before and after the session.
The anti-sedition legislation, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule, falls under the city’s Crimes Ordinance. It is separate from the Beijing-imposed national security law, and outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the authorities.
Non-profit online news outlet Stand News ceased operations last December after its newsroom was raided by more than 200 national security police officers.
Seven people connected to the publication – including Chung and Lam – were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious publications.
Chung and Lam have been remanded in custody for 10 months since their arrests.