The lead prosecutor in the trial of a former Hong Kong chief editor, who is charged with sedition over 17 commentaries and news reports, said Thursday that commentaries should include opinions from both sides of an issue.

Laura Ng asked Chung Pui-kuen if he agreed that Stand News’ commentaries were not “balanced” as they only focused on protesters during the 2019 unrest.

Stand News Chung pui-kuen Patrick Lam
Chung Pui-kuen on December 13, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Chung, the former acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam, and Best Pencil Limited, Stand News’ parent company, are accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications.”

Balance in op-ed

After Chung at the prosecution’s request summarised some of Stand News’ most viewed commentaries – including an op-ed saying that foreign countries were entitled to interfere in Hong Kong – Ng asked if he agreed that the articles represented what readers of the digital news outlet preferred.

Chung said it depended, as some articles gained more exposure after being shared by readers on other platforms.

Stand News Chung pui-kuen Patrick Lam
Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam on December 13, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“Exactly, ” Ng said, “when a reader shared a Stand News’ article, and when it travelled far enough, other non-Stand News readers would only read that particular article. Doesn’t that mean every article should maintain balance and neutrality?”

Chung replied that commentaries should always be opinionated. “Agree, but once it’s inside your head, you cannot get rid of it,” Ng said.

“We hope every civic-minded citizen can forward not just a single article, but articles from across the political spectrum, ” Chung said.

“You hope to do that, but it’s not what happened in reality,” Ng replied.

stand news homepage final
Stand News’ home page on December 29, 2021 before it was shut down.

Chung raised the example of TVB, a pro-establishment broadcasting news outlet, saying it also had opinion pieces. “This is how op-ed works in media,” he said repeatedly, adding that the only way to maintain balance was to keep “existing.”

“Let Stand News exist so that we can keep on producing articles representing different opinions. Otherwise, we cannot achieve that,” Chung said.

The non-profit online news outlet 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. They were both granted bail after being held in custody for nearly a year.

A story of sardines

Ng later asked if Chung agreed that most people prefer reading news reports that align with their particular political stance, and that their favorite news outlet could have an imperceptible influence on them – shaping their perceptions of different issues.

“I dare not say the media has such influence. It depends,” Chung said.

Ng then recalled a story – which she claimed was told by her teacher in school – about how a sardine business owner won over customers from a competitor after claiming the owner’s sardines did not contain any carcinogenic substance.

Stand News Chung pui-kuen Patrick Lam
Chung Pui-kuen on December 13, 2022. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“Eh… You just raised a marketing strategy, what’s your point?” Chung asked. Ng said articles in Stand News only emphasised the good qualities of protesters, and “that’s already a criticism of the other side.”

Chung said Stand News, as a news outlet, aimed to probe the deep-rooted causes of social movements like the 2019 unrest. He said that unless the government tackled the root cause of public outrage, another social movement might break out in the future.

“It’s not something you can resolve through arresting individuals, suppressing certain opinions or allegedly “seditious” organisations,” he added.

The trial continues on Friday. Sedition is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.

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.

Prison van Stand News West Kowloon court
A woman waves goodbye at a Correctional Services Department van outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 30, 2021. She was among a crowd which tried to bid farewell to former Stand News editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen who was remanded into custody pending trial under the colonial-era anti-sedition law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. 

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.