A former editor of an independent Hong Kong media outlet on trial for sedition was asked whether all Stand News staff were “yellow” – a colour associated with the city’s pro-democracy camp – as the prosecution sought to depict the outlet as a political platform.

Lead prosecutor Laura Ng continued her questioning of Chung Pui-kuen at District Court on Friday. Chung, former acting chief editor Patrick Lam and Stand News’ parent company, stand accused of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials.

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.

Ng on Friday presented a double-page spread from a print publication published by Stand News in 2020, asking the veteran journalist: “why did you use yellow as the background colour of this page? Is it really just a coincidence?”

In response, Chung held up another spread from the same publication that had a blue background. “I never thought about the meaning of the background colour… but the fact you singled out the colour yellow, and yet leave out the colour blue in this, it is terrifying to Hong Kong media,” Chung said.

Customised name cards

According to Chung, the publication was given out exclusively to Stand News’ bloggers and paid subscribers, and featured content such as the outlet’s most viewed articles and “classic” news graphics.

Chung Pui-kuen, former chief editor of Stand News, at the District Court on January 26, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Ng asked Chung about pages in the publication that featured 30 graphics, each bearing four Chinese characters. Chung said they represented Stand News business cards, adding that employees were allowed to customise the back of their name cards using any four-character term.

Ng asked if Stand News staff were required to choose a phrase that represented their political beliefs.

“Your colleagues were all people with a ‘belief’ and ‘stance,’ isn’t that right?” Ng said.

Chung said staff were not ordered to pick a phrase that aligned with their political stance, “it was just a free space for them to reflect their personalities, principles and interests.”

Reading one of the business cards – “a single spark” – Ng said the “sensitive phrase” reminded her of Spark Alliance – a defunct fundraising platform known for providing financial aid to Hong Kong protesters during the 2019 protests and unrest. Chung, in response, said that he found Ng’s association unexpected.

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

Ng also highlighted other phrases – which can be loosely translated as “have a responsibility” and “going up and down together” – saying they were slogans that originated during the 2019 protests.

Chung, however, refuted Ng’s interpretations.

“Different people’s interpretations can be worlds apart. It would be dangerous to establish a legal boundary for speech, allowing only one way to interpret it… and your interpretation was subjective and spontaneous,” Chung said. Even his interpretation was unable to reflect the true thoughts of his colleagues, he added.

Political stance

Ng asked Chung if all the reporters who worked at Stand News were “yellow.” After Chung refused to answer, saying he thought the question was too general, Judge Kwok Wai-kin asked him if any of the outlet’s staff supported the national security law.

An artwork capturing Stand News’ office. It was created by a former staff at the outlet, and was exhibited at Have A Nice Stay Bookstore. Photo: Lea Mok/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.

“I didn’t ask them one by one [if they supported the law],” Chung said.

“Couldn’t you tell by their daily conversations?” Ng asked.

Chung said people could have different stances on various issues, and using “yellow” and “blue” – the colour associated with the pro-establishment camp – was overly generalising.

“But no one ever told you they supported the police, right?” Ng asked.

“No, but no one came up to me and suddenly told me they were against the police either, ” Chung said.

Ronson Chan was seen back at the Stand News office shortly after being released on Wednesday, December 29, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“You said everyone has their own stance. Isn’t it dangerous if a reporter covers news with a strong political stance?” Ng asked.

“Everyone who cares about the welfare of a community would presumably form their own political opinions at some point, perhaps even you, prosecutor Ng… but does it necessarily mean their professionalism would be affected by their political opinion?” Chung said.

Chung said he believed his colleagues were professional enough to keep their political beliefs from affecting their works.

The trial will continue on February 3.

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

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.

The former editors were the only two charged. They were both granted bail after being held in custody for nearly a year.

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Lea Mok

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.