The former chief editor of independent outlet Stand News argued with the prosecution on Friday over why a judgement affirming the national security judge appointment system was never covered by the now-defunct news platform.

Chung Pui-kuen Stand News
Chung Pui-kuen on 17 March, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Chung Pui-kuen, former editor-in-chief of the outlet, and Patrick Lam, former acting editor-in-chief, stand accused of conspiring to publish “seditious” publication along with the outlet’s parent company.

The duo appeared before Judge Kwok Wai-kin at the Wan Chai District Court as the sedition trial – which began last October and was supposed to last 20 days – entered its 42nd day.

Kwok, one of the city’s handpicked national security judges, asked Chung on Tuesday why a commentary published by the non-profit outlet did not mention a section in a judgement assuring judicial independence, even when national security judges are chosen by Hong Kong’s leader.

Lead prosecutor Laura Ng followed up and asked Chung the same question again during Friday’s hearing. In response, Chung said he noticed that almost no outlet had reported that particular part of the judgement: “[Y]ou too had never heard about that section before the judge mentioned it to you in court.”

“I didn’t know it because the press, including your outlet, didn’t report on it,” the prosecutor replied.

Laura Ng Stand News
The lead prosecutor Laura Ng on 17 March, 2023. Photo: HKFP.

Chung paused for a few seconds and said, “as a member of the Department of Justice who is executing the national security law, you said you didn’t know the judgement yourself…yet, you blame the press for that.”

“We, even as legal professionals, didn’t know about the judgement either. How would the public possibly hear of this if the media didn’t report it?” Ng said.

Chung, ending the debate, answered that perhaps the model of designated judges was not considered by journalists to be the focus of the documents.

Baggio Leung’s profile

The prosecutor moved on to two articles about – or penned by – self-exiled pro-democracy figures. The articles about former lawmaker Baggio Leung and activist Sunny Cheung were the last two pieces among the allegedly “seditious” articles that were published by the outlet when Chung was at the helm.

List of the 17 selected articles – Click to see
  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.

A video – embedded in the allegedly “seditious” profile of Baggio Leung – was played in court. In it, the 36 year-old political figure said he wanted “two country, two systems” – referencing the “one country, two systems” model of governance applied to Hong Kong after the city’s handover to China.

“He was implying Hong Kong Independence,” the prosecutor said, “why did you still let him talk about this on your platform?” Chung, repeating his answers from previous hearings, said the political ideologies of young politicians deserved to be documented.

Chung Pui-kuen Stand News
Chung Pui-kuen on 17 March, 2023. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

Ng then turned to the reporter’s line of questioning. She said Lam Yin-pong, Stand News’ reporter who interviewed Leung, had repeatedly asked leading questions that allowed the politician to elaborate on his guilt about fleeing the city.

“Lam made an assumption that Leung had no choice but to leave Hong Kong, prompting the public to sympathise with Leung… even though Leung wasn’t charged by the national security police at the time, “ Ng said.

Chung said “having no choice but to leave” was a phrase used by Lam to describe the general sentiment felt by most people, not just Leung, who left the city: “[M]any felt like they had no other option, as people were expecting arrests for doing what used to be allowed in Hong Kong.”

The prosecutor said Lam purposefully raised certain topics, even when Leung did not mention them – such as asking Leung if he missed his family at the end of the interview.

“That was merely an interviewing skill – we ask questions that the public wish to know, “ Chung answered, adding that asking about personal matters before finishing an interview was a typical practice.

Sunny Cheung’s op-ed

Another commentary by Sunny Cheung, who founded a now-defunct international lobbying organisation that advocated protestors’ demands in 2019, also became the subject of questioning in the hearing.

In the op-ed published in December 2020, Cheung responded to news about him being wanted by the government nearly three months after the 27-year-old politician went into self-exile and settled in the US.

Laura Ng Stand News
The lead prosecutor Laura Ng on 17 March, 2023. Photo: HKFP.

Calling Cheung a radical activist, Ng claimed Cheung hated the central government, and that he wanted to incite hatred among others too.

The prosecutor said Stand News had published the full version of Cheung’s op-ed even though the news outlet has already published a write-up about his response: “[T]he intention was to help Cheung to spread his seditious messages.”

“Absolutely not. I never intended to do anything like that,” the ex-chief editor said, adding that he preferred publishing the complete version of politicians’ speeches as it helped to present their thoughts and style of writing to the readers.

The trial will continue on Monday.

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.

Advocacy groups, the UN, and western countries criticised the arrests as a sign of declining media freedoms, while 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.