A former editor of defunct independent outlet Stand News, who has been charged under Hong Kong’s sedition law, was questioned about satirical images published by the platform as the trial against him continued.
Stand News’ former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and former acting chief editor Patrick Lam, both accused of conspiring to publish “seditious publications,” appeared at District Court on Thursday as the prosecution entered its third day of Chung’s questioning.
New materials were presented by lead prosecutor Laura Ng on Thursday, including several satirical images published by Stand News. One, from 2020, depicted an illustration of the coronavirus with the face of Chinese leader Xi Jinping “surfing” in the sea.
“Are you saying that president Xi is a coronavirus?” Ng asked.
Chung said the image symbolised how coronavirus first broke out in China, and “spread across to the world like a tsunami.” When asked if he agreed the image was biased, Chung said it was a common satire on the virus at the time.
“The [graphic designer] used the face of president Xi as he symbolises China. I know some might think it would be ‘troublesome’ to play with a political figure like this, but satire often uses the people in power as a symbol,” he said.
Ng also presented two news articles on the term “Wuhan virus” being banned by US President Joe Biden in 2021 to the court, saying that Biden agreed the term triggered hatred against Asians. In an earlier session, Chung was questioned about Stand News’ use of the term.
Citing two scholars from the University of Hong Kong’s Faculty of Medicine, Chung said that the term was not considered inappropriate in early 2020. However, the outlet decided to drop the term in late 2021, Chung added.
Features of radical protestors
Three Stand News’ articles featuring radical protestors from 2019 – which were not among the 17 allegedly seditious articles admitted as evidence – were also presented to the court by the prosecution on Thursday.
In two of the articles, a radical protestor who claimed to have been responsible for violent attacks against the police was interviewed. He said he had drawn reference from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) when attempting to build an army with friends. The third was an interview with a scholar from HKU on the ethics of radical protests.
Calling the protestors “terrorists,” lead prosecutor Laura Ng said the articles showed how the idea of state subversion had emerged in the city before the implementation of the national security law.
Responding to Ng, Chung said he had noticed a “worrying trend” of escalating violence in the 2019 protests. “Ignoring the [radicals] doesn’t mean they do not exist,” Chung said, adding that “we, as a media outlet, were responsible for sparking discussions.”
Chung added that the outlet had included comments from two Hong Kong politics scholars on the legitimacy of violent disobedience.
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.
Irish war of independence
The prosecution then questioned Chung extensively on the outlet’s news features and an op-ed which had compared Hong Kong and Northern Ireland, including an interview with the former chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association Paul Harris.
According to Chung’s earlier testimony, Stand News had accidentally published an op-ed in May 2021 comparing the 2019 protests in Hong Kong with 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.
On Chung’s lack of response to that condemnation, Ng said he had not responded “because it was never an accident to publish the article in the first place.”
Chung denied the accusation. He said since Stand News received “continuous and groundless criticism” from across the board every day, and he thought it best not to respond and to “let our work prove what kind of new outlet we were,” Chung said.
After discussing the newly submitted Stand News’ articles, defence counsel Audrey Eu expressed her concern about the prosecution’s extensive references. “I’m afraid this is going to be endless. These were irrelevant to the discussion about whether the 17 articles are seditious or not,” Eu said.
Judge Kwok Wai-kin, however, asked the prosecution to continue as “everyone has their own way of questioning,” and the articles could be relevant to the prosecution’s closing statement.
The trial will continue on Friday.
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. Sedition is punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment.
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.
Clarification 27/1/2023: A previous version of this article misrepresented some of the evidence examined in court as “political comics,” when in fact they were better described as “satirical images.”