A Hong Kong veteran journalist began testifying over an allegedly “seditious” profile of a now-detained democrat on Monday, as the sedition trial against a shuttered news outlet Stand News entered its 33rd day.

Chung Pui-kuen Patrick Lam Stand News
Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam on February 20, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Lead prosecutor Laura Ng said the message conveyed by the profile of Fergus Leung was that the national security law was suppressing political participation, adding that the interviewee’s claims about the law in the article were often “groundless.”

But Chung Pui-kuen, the independent outlet’s former chief editor, said that concerns about the law were not uncommon at the time. Along with former acting chief editor Patrick Lam, he stands accused of conspiring to publish seditious publications during what was meant to be a 20-day trial.

An illegal phrase

Fergus Leung is currently one of the defendants in the city’s largest national security case, in which 47 prominent democrats were charged under the security law with “conspiracy to commit subversion” after they organised primaries in a bid to win the 2020 legislative election.

Fergus Leung
Fergus Leung. Photo: HKFP.

During Monday’s District Court hearing, Ng asked Chung what Leung was referring to in his profile – published before his arrest – when the democrat said that “national security police were waiting to arrest someone who said ‘the four words.”

Chung answered “liberate Hong Kong” – a four-character Chinese phrase that was popular among demonstrators during the 2019 protests and unrest, but later criminalised.

Ng argued that the phrase was not outlawed in August 2020 when the article was published, citing internal police guidelines reported by state-backed Wen Wei Po: “[T]he report said showing the slogan ‘might’ violate the law… but Leung said chanting the slogan ‘will’ lead to arrest. His claim was groundless,” she said.

Chung, however, said Ng’s questions were contradictory as she said earlier that people should have known the democrats’ primary was illegal, since Erick Tsang – secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs of Hong Kong – once said it “might” be outlawed later.

“Why did you assume everyone knew the primary was illegal when Tsang’s wording was actually milder than the Wen Wei Po’s?” Chung asked.

Ng replied that she did not understand Chung’s question, and moved on to another claims made by Leung, who said the “national security law was everywhere,” and that he – as a politician – was worried about the safety of his family.

47 democrats
(From left to right) Henry Wong, Fergus Leung and Gordon Ng being transferred onto a Correctional Services Department vehicle on March 19, 2021.

“I’d say after reading this article, most readers would acquire the sense that the national security law was not only going to hurt some people, but also their family,” Ng said.

Chung again disagreed with Ng’s line of questioning: “I understand why a politician has such worries about his safety, as well as his families’ well being. They were not groundless.”

‘Stylish’ Nazi uniform

Ng said she was keen to understand the circumstances in which Chung would take down an article out of national security concerns. She also asked him several hypothetical questions, including whether Chung would publish a commentary calling the Nazi uniform “stylish” if he was the editor in a European news outlet during World War II.

Chung said he felt hesitant to answer such questions: “I won’t say I wouldn’t publish the article… Let’s say an art student really appreciates their uniform – perhaps we could call him unwise for suggesting something like that, yet it’s not criminal,” he said.

However, he later added that he would not publish such an article, as it would not be in the public interest.

district court
Photo: Almond Li/HKFP.

“Not concerning public interest?” Ng asked. “We’re talking about someone calling Nazis ‘stylish.’ It might lead to more people agreeing that their uniform is stylish, making the public less patriotic.”

Chung then raised an example about the waves of anti-war sentiment that appeared across America during the Vietnam War, claiming that the protests were deemed by the US authorities as endangering national security, yet US news outlets at the time continued to report on the demonstrations.

In response to another question on whether he would conduct a feature interview with Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attack in New York, Chung said a news editor should never turn down an interview with a political figure of such importance. However, some precautionary measures must be made beforehand, he added.

“Don’t you see it would endanger national security? What if some Americans think the country deserves to be bombed after hearing his speech?” Ng asked.

Chung said the thoughts of a terrorist need to be documented, especially after such a huge attack. However, he would balance the report with other voices. He added that news outlets around the globe have been reporting on terrorists claiming responsibility for attacks in the past too.

“The United Nations also provided guidelines on how to report news related to terrorism – their solution was not banning it either, ” he added.

When Ng moved on to asking Chung whether he would publish a profile of Russian President Vladimir Putin if he was working in Ukraine, he said he could not give a solid answer as his might need to rethink the boundaries of news media during wartime.

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

Chung said that he believed humans were autonomous and rational beings, and restrictions on freedom of speech must be justifiable.

Sedition law

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 digital news outlet Stand News ceased operations and deleted its website in December 2021 after its newsroom was raided by over 200 national security police officers. Seven people connected to the independent outlet were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to “publish seditious publications.” However, only ex-chief editor Chung Pui-kuen, acting chief editor Patrick Lam and parent company Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited were charged under the colonial-era law.

The 17 allegedly seditious Stand News articles – click to view
  1. Profile of Gwyneth Ho, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 7, 2020.
  2. Profile of Owen Chow, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on July 27, 2020.
  3. Profile of Fergus Leung, a candidate in the 2020 legislative primaries held by the pro-democracy camp, published on August 12, 2020.
  4. Commentary by Chan Pui-man, Apple Daily’s former associate publisher, criticising speech crimes, published on September 12, 2020.
  5. 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.
  6. Profile of Law on his “battlefront” of calling for sanctions on the Hong Kong government in the UK, published on December 9, 2020.
  7. Commentary by Law on “resilience in a chaotic world,” published on December 13, 2020.
  8. Feature interview with Ted Hui, a former lawmaker in self-exile, after he fled Hong Kong with his family, published on December 14, 2020.
  9. 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.
  10. Commentary by Sunny Cheung, an activist in self-exile, responding to being wanted by the Hong Kong government, published on December 28, 2020.
  11. 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.
  12. Commentary by Au calling a national security trial a show, published on February 3, 2021.
  13. 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.
  14. Commentary by Au accusing the authorities of “lawfare” in usage of the sedition law, published on June 1, 2021.
  15. Commentary by Au describing Hong Kong as a disaster scene after the implementation of national security law, published on June 22, 2021.
  16. Feature about CUHK graduates’ march on campus to mourn the second anniversary of the police-student clash in 2019, published on November 11, 2021.
  17. Report on Chow Hang-tung’s response to being honoured with the Prominent Chinese Democracy Activist award, published on December 5, 2021.

Advocacy groups, the UN, and western countries criticised the arrests as a sign of declining media freedoms, whilst now-Chief Executive John Lee condemned “bad apples” who “polluted” press freedom following the raids. The trial began in October 2022 with the court considering 17 allegedly seditious articles, including interviews, profiles, hard news reporting and opinion pieces. Sedition is not covered by the Beijing-imposed security law and carries a maximum penalty of two years behind bars.

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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.