Independent Hong Kong outlet Stand News, which ceased operations in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by national security police, was committed to protecting freedom of speech, a court has heard.
The outlet’s former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen – who stands accused of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials along with ex-acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam and Stand News’ parent company Best Pencil Ltd – took the stand at District Court on Tuesday to deliver his testimony.
“Since day one, if you had asked me what our guiding principle was, I would have said it is [protecting] freedom of speech,” Chung told the court.
Chung said that the high level of free speech enjoyed by Hong Kong in the past was fragile, and that the colonial-era sedition law – under which he has been charged – should not have still existed after the city’s Handover from British to Chinese rule, as it violated the Rights Ordinance and the Basic Law.
Freedom of speech
Chung said in order to embody freedom of speech, the outlet published almost every commentary submitted by its columnists from across the political spectrum.
“I would not ask myself why I should publish something, instead I would ask why I should not,” Chung said, adding that he would not publish an op-ed if it were factually inaccurate, made unfounded allegations, or would have caused violence or harm to public.
He added that a controversial pro-establishment columnist had been fiercely condemned by Stand News readers during the 2019 protests and unrest, but the outlet had continued to publish the writer’s commentaries.
Chung was asked by defence counsel Audrey Eu if a famous quote from French writer Voltaire – “I wholly disapprove of what you say, and will defend to the death your right to say it” – encapsulated his ideals.
Chung said that although some may consider it clichéd, he believed that public debate should be encouraged, and reporting does not equal endorsing.
“Even when it comes to the idea of Hong Kong Independence – if someone raises it, and people are paying attention to it, then journalists ought to cover it. Let the public debate on whether the idea is right or not, and let the judiciary decide whether it is lawful or not.”
When asked by Eu about his view on freedom of expression in the city, Chung said journalists had been free to practice their vocation without facing legal repercussions before 2019, even after Hong Kong’s return to China. “Many people in the industry wanted to protect that,” he said.
Among the 17 allegedly seditious articles published by Stand News, nine of them are commentaries published by former politicians who have left the city or journalists who have been arrested.
List of the 17 selected articles – Click to see
- Profile of Gwyneth Ho, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 7, 2020.
- Profile of Owen Chow, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 27, 2020.
- Profile of Fergus Leung, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on August 12, 2020.
- Commentary by Chan Pui-man, Apple Daily’s former associate publisher, criticising speech crimes, published on September 12, 2020.
- Commentary by Nathan Law, a former lawmaker now in self-exile, on “how to resist” under the national security law, published on September 20, 2020.
- Profile of Law on his “battlefront” of calling for sanctions on the Hong Kong government in the UK, published on December 9, 2020.
- Commentary by Law on “resilience in a chaotic world,” published on December 13, 2020.
- Feature interview with Ted Hui, a former lawmaker in self-exile, after he fled Hong Kong with his family, published on December 14, 2020.
- Feature interview with Baggio Leung, a former lawmaker in self-exile, as he called for sanctions on Hong Kong and a “lifeboat scheme for Hongkongers,” published on December 15, 2020.
- Commentary by Sunny Cheung, an activist in self-exile, responding to being wanted by the Hong Kong government, published on December 28, 2020.
- Commentary by Allan Au, a veteran journalist, on “new words in 2020,” which included “national security,” “disqualified” and “in exile,” published on December 29, 2020.
- Commentary by Au calling a national security trial a show, published on February 3, 2021.
- Commentary by Law paralleling the mass arrests of candidates in the democrats’ primaries to mass arrests during Taiwan’s white terror period, published on March 2, 2021.
- Commentary by Au accusing the authorities of “lawfare” in usage of the sedition law, published on June 1, 2021.
- Commentary by Au describing Hong Kong as a disaster scene after the implementation of national security law, published on June 22, 2021.
- Feature about CUHK graduates’ march on campus to mourn the second anniversary of the police-student clash in 2019, published on November 11, 2021.
- Report on Chow Hang-tung’s response to being honoured with the Prominent Chinese Democracy Activist award, published on December 5, 2021.
Working without pay
Chung, 53, was the chief editor of Stand News from 2015 until October 2021 after his wife, Apple Daily’s associate publisher Chan Pui-man, was arrested over alleged collusion with foreign forces.
Chung and Lam were both arrested on December 29, 2021. Within hours of their arrests, the independent online outlet announced its closure and the removal of all of its articles.
Before taking the helm at Stand News, Chung worked at Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, MingPao, Hong Kong Economic Times and House News – Stand News’ predecessor, which folded over alleged political pressure during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Chung said considering what happened to House News, he and Stand News’ two other co-founders – Tony Tsoi and Yu Ka-fai – had decided that Best Pencil’s shares should not be held privately by a single person. The trio each held a third of the company’s shares and gave up their rights to receive dividends and to transfer shares to a trust fund.
Additionally, Chung – whose initial contractual monthly wage was HK$76,500 – worked without pay for half an year in 2016, as the outlet was encountering financial difficulties at the time.
“It was just a job, why were you still working as the chief editor, even without pay?” Eu asked.
“Why?… Ah… because I like the job,” Chung responded after a long pause.
He said he did not want to let go of any staff, “and it would be a pity to shut the outlet.” Chung added that he gave the staff a pay raise that year despite not receiving his salary himself.
According to Chung’s tax statements presented at court, he was paid a reduced salary from 2017, and his pay never matched the contractual amount after 2016, including when the outlet received enormous donations from the public during the protests.
Chung said this was the case “because it’s unnecessary…and I was too lazy to request a pay rise from the board.”
The UK bureau
In their opening statement, the prosecution called Stand News a political platform which helped self-exiled radicals to promote their radical and unlawful propaganda through its UK bureau, which was launched in 2021.
Chung, however, said the idea of opening a UK bureau came from the emerging exodus in the city, adding that the politicians now based overseas were “definitely irrelevant” to his decision to launch a new bureau.
“We journalists are actually quite simple and naïve: when something draws public attention or concerns the public interest, we are motivated to cover it. The [self-exiled politicians] mentioned in the prosecution’s opening are apparent of this category – they were lawmakers that people cared about, so journalists wanted to cover them,” Chung explained.
Chung will continue to testify on Wednesday.
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 were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious publications. Only Chung and Lam were charged.
They were both granted bail late last year after being held in custody for nearly a year.