The prosecution’s questioning of the former editor-in-chief of defunct Hong Kong news outlet Stand News continued on Friday, with the court hearing how an op-ed comparing the 2019 protests with the Irish War of Independence was accidentally published by the platform.
Chung Pui-kuen, Stand News’ former chief editor, and Patrick Lam, the outlet’s former acting chief editor – both accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publication” – appeared before Judge Kwok Wai-kin in District Court on Friday as Chung was questioned by the prosecution for the second day.
Among the 17 allegedly seditious articles admitted as evidence in the case, nine were commentaries written by journalists Allan Au and Chan Pui-man, or self-exiled politicians Nathan Law and Sunny Cheung.
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.
During his testimony, Chung said in order to embody freedom of speech, the outlet published almost every commentary submitted by its columnists from across the political spectrum, adding that almost all op-eds were published on other media platforms first as Stand News had never paid for exclusive commentaries.
On Friday, Ng asked if Chung proofread every commentary – especially those written by Au, Chan, Law and Cheung – before publishing them.
Chung, who said Stand News once had hundreds of active “bloggers” – a term used to describe columnists in the outlet – said it was impossible for him to read through every article before hitting the publish.
However, he said he had checked nearly every political op-ed after the implementation of national security law, including those by the four bloggers in question. Commentaries on “low risk” topics, such as culture, art and sports, were published without him first having to approve them.
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.
After saying she had not heard of Stand News before the arrests and did not read any online news, Ng asked Chung if he agreed that publishing commentaries without the chief editor’s approval was risky, “if 90% of your bloggers write about police brutality, then your website would be crammed with this content.”
“No chief editor can possibly read through every article before they are published on an outlet’s website,” Chung said, adding that Stand News carried more diverse content than most pro-establishment news outlets.
Op-ed on Irish War of Independence
According to Ng, Stand News once published an op-ed comparing the Hong Kong 2019 protests and the Irish War of Independence. The controversial commentary triggered condemnation from the pro-establishment camp, although Chung said it was taken down within three hours of publication .
Chung claimed the op-ed had been published accidentally before being granted his approval, as one of his employees had set the wrong publishing time in the content management system. It was usual practice at Stand News to set the publishing time as “in the future” if it was a yet-to-be-approved article, he said.
Chung told the court he ordered the op-ed to be taken down immediately after realising the mistake, as the outlet refused to publish any commentaries related to separatism after the national security law was implemented.
However, Ng said that the op-ed promoted Hong Kong independence and Stand News had served as a platform for the piece.
“Even though the article was on Stand News for just a few hours, it had travelled to an online forum in Taiwan,” Ng said, referring to the Taiwanese forum PTT.
She also cited an op-ed by a state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao columnist accusing Paul Harris, former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, of compared Hong Kong with Northern Ireland after the publication of the op-ed by Stand News. “What a coincidence,” Ng said, reading the Ta Kung Pao columnist’s comments.
Defense counsel Audrey Eu paused Ng’s questioning, and asked her to clarify the purpose of discussing this op-ed. “This is neither among the 17 articles, nor will be used as basis for prosecution… how is this related to this case?” Eu asked.
Kwok asked Ng to proceed but rephrase her questions. When asked why Stand News did not respond to criticism from the pro-establishment camp, Chung said he did not think it necessary since the op-ed had already been taken down. “Though I admit that it was a mistake publishing the op-ed in the first place,” he said.
Ng also questioned Chung for the use of the term “Wuhan virus” by the, saying it stigmatised China. “Why did you continue to use that term even after the WHO had said Covid did not originate in Wuhan?” she asked.
Chung, in response to Ng, said the term “Wuhan virus” was in use at the time, citing two university professors explaining the validity of term. He also denied it stigmatised China.
The trial continues on January 26. 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.
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. They were both granted bail after being held in custody for nearly a year.