The former chief editor of Hong Kong’s now defunct Stand News, who is on trial for 17 allegedly seditious articles, said on Thursday it should not be a crime to cover an allegedly illegal event such as the opposition primary in July 2020.
Four of the articles relate to the primary, which led to the separate arrest of 47 democrats under the national security law.
Chung Pui-kuen, the former editor-in-chief of Stand News, and Patrick Lam, its former acting editor-in-chief, appeared in District Court as the sedition trial against the shuttered news outlet entered its 19th day.
In response to prosecution allegations that his online news outlet had promoted the unlawful primary, Chung told the court that covering an allegedly illegal event should not be criminalised.
“Even if they [primary participants] were charged, convicted, or if they were criminals, they would still be entitled to freedom [of speech],” he said.
Reporting democrats’ primary
A month after Beijing imposed the security law, the pro-democracy camp held a primary involving votes by the public to pick candidates for a Legislative Council scheduled for September 2020. In January 2021, 47 of them were arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit subversion.
Prosecutors in their opening statement accused Stand News of promoting the unlawful political agenda of three candidates – Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow and Fergus Leung – by publishing profiles of them.
The outlet was also accused of glorifying the arrested candidates by carrying another commentary on the mass arrest from Nathan Law, a self-exiled former lawmaker.
“Their intention goes without saying, ” prosecution said.
Chung denied all the prosecution allegations, saying the primary was a newsworthy event and the three candidates were the focus of great public attention. He said the proposals and strategies of young politicians should be documented so the voting public could make an informed choice.
“Even if the primary was criminalised later, these interviews and news reports should not be taken down, as those are historical records,” Chung said, adding that up to the closure of Stand News, no one involved in the event had been convicted.
The defense counsel presented profiles of pro-establishment politicians published by Stand News during previous Legislative Council elections.
Gwyneth Ho’s feature
Among the three young candidates featured by Stand News, Gwyneth Ho was once a well-known journalist who worked at the outlet. She was nicknamed “Stand News sister” by many during the 2019 protests and unrest.
Chung, Ho’s previous superior, described her as an outstanding and professional reporter when she was covering the 2019 protests. However, he said that when Ho announced she would “put down her press card” and throw her hat in the ring at the primary, some ethical doubts about her journalistic professionalism emerged online.
“There is a clear line between politicians and professional journalists that cannot be muddied,” Chung said, adding this was the core question that the story aimed to address. He said that throughout the article, Stand News never encouraged its readers to support Ho and “some readers even said we were making a fuss [about Ho running in the primary].”
In their opening statement, the prosecution quoted Ho in the piece as saying that “police brutality is a fact.” Chung said the claim was not groundless and should be further discussed by society.
“Calling a politician ‘seditious’ just because she said this… you could imagine how the chilling effect would hamper the development of our society,” Chung told the court.
Not deleting pictures of protestors
Chung also mentioned that Stand News, deemed by many as a pro-democracy news outlet, had many times refused to delete pictures of protesters, even under enormous pressure and email attacks from demonstrators who feared being recognised.
He said the role of Stand News was not to protect anyone at the scene, but to make a historical records of events of public concern.
“Some called us ‘selling out comrades.’ They flooded into our social media, asking us to delete photos and videos,” Chung said, “but as far as I remember, we basically didn’t make any compromise.”
Unless interviewees had asked for anonymity in advance, Chung said, he would not accept a request to delete records. “I used to think if I get arrested, it would be because of protecting my source,” he added.
Chung is charged under anti-sedition legislation, which was last amended in the 1970s when Hong Kong was still under British colonial rule. It is separate from the Beijing-imposed national security law, and outlaws incitement to violence, disaffection and other offences against the authorities. The maximum penalty for sedition is two years.
Stand News ceased operations in December 2021 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. They were both granted bail after being held in custody for nearly a year.
The trial continues.