The sedition trial against defunct news outlet Stand News, which was originally scheduled to close last November, has come to an end after 56 days in court, with the verdict set to be handed down in October.
Chung Pui-kuen, former chief editor of Stand News, and Patrick Lam, former acting editor of the outlet, stand accused of conspiring to publish seditious publications along with the outlet’s parent company, Best Pencil Limited. Chung and Lam appeared in front of Judge Kwok Wai-kin on Wednesday on the final day of closing arguments.
The court last week revealed that Lam had been accepted to a fellowship program hosted by a well-known overseas university that he had yet to accept as he might miss its start due to the trial.
When the judge announced on Wednesday’s hearing that he would adjourn the verdict for three months – meaning Lam would probably miss the fellowship program if he were to be convicted – the crowd in the public gallery gasped.
Timeline of the Stand News trial – Click to view
November 29 – Six people linked to Stand News were arrested as the newsroom was raided
November 30 – Two former chief editors were charged for conspiring to publish seditious publications, bail denied
October 31 – Stand News sedition trial began. It was set to last for 20 days and end on or before November 25, 2022
November 7 – Patrick Lam was granted bail as new evidence was disclosed
December 13 – Chung Pui-kuen was granted bail as the defence applied to terminate the trial due to allegedly unfair court proceedings
December 22 – Judge Kwok Wai-kin rejected the stay application, trial resumed
January 10 – Chung Pui-kuen began giving testimony in court
April 4 – Chung Pui-kuen completed his testimony after 36 days, 26 of which were spent by the prosecution for re-examination
June 19 – Closing argument adjourned as the lead prosecutor was infected with Covid-19
June 26 to 28 – The both sides delivered their closing arguments
October 4 – The judge will hand down verdict, 644 days after the arrest
Sedition carries a maximum penalty of two years behind bars, including the time already served during custody. Chung and Lam were both detained for almost a year before they were granted bail at the beginning of the trial.
On the last day of closing arguments, defence counsel Audrey Eu said the only agreement, or “conspiracy,” between the former editors was reporting the truth as promised in the news outlet’s founding declaration.
Eu held that the editors should not be convicted for sedition as they sincerely believed their actions were deemed lawful at the time.
“If covering incidents or political figures unfavourable to the country was outlawed, the government should have announced it to the world, otherwise how would we know we were breaching the law?” she asked.
The senior counsel added that Stand News was the only local outlet charged with sedition, although many others had interviewed the same political figures. “The defendants were doing the same practice as the others, of course they feel unconvinced [of the grounds for being charged].”
Lead prosecutor Laura Ng told the defence on Tuesday, “even if other media outlets also violated the law, that doesn’t mean I cannot sue you,” comparing it with a hypothetical situation in which only one out of two shoplifters was caught in a supermarket.
“Please do not align us with shoplifters, [my clients] didn’t commit crime, they were simply decent people reporting the news,” the defence said on Wednesday.
In response to Ng, who earlier suggested that news reporting was “only one of the Stand News editors’ aims,” Eu argued that the prosecution was obligated to prove that committing an offence was the editors’ “unquestionable sole intent,” citing a recent judgement by the top court on journalist Bao Choy’s appeal.
Choy’s conviction for making false statements to obtain vehicle records for a documentary she made about a 2019 mob attack in Yuen Long was quashed in early June.
The defence counsel also reminded the court that Stand News was only the “messenger,” not the author of one of the allegedly seditious op-eds: “We are not putting Gwyneth Ho or Ted Hui on trial.”
Regarding Ng’s claims that news materials should be deemed “seditious” if they stirred up public dissatisfaction against the government, Eu said the bar should be set higher as basic rights were subject to restriction in this case.
There are different levels of dissatisfaction, the defence counsel said, adding that only subversive content promoting an armed revolution or treason should be considered seditious. The articles published by Stand News did not fall under that category, she said.
Citing various versions of codes of ethics for journalists, the defence also said none of them required news outlets to provide “full fact” in commentaries – a requirement suggested by the prosecutor in her closing argument.
“No commentary in the world can possibly provide the so-called ‘full fact,’ even the ones written by [former Hong Kong leader] CY Leung,” Eu added.
Credibility of Chung
Chung, who opted to testify in court, was on the witness stand for 36 days of the trial. Prosecutor Ng said that although Chung did not lie in his testimony, the former chief editor was not a reliable witness on crucial matters as he dodged certain questions.
Eu, on the other hand, blamed Ng’s line of questioning, saying the prosecutor had pushed the former chief editor to answer oversimplified questions.
The defence counsel also held that Chung’s testimony presented an “internal consistency,” citing the time when he had pointed out inaccuracies in an article about a speech by US president Joe Biden by Taiwan outlet China News.
The write-up was compared with Stand News’s copy for the prosecutor to prove alleged bias in Stand News reporting. However, after reading the full transcript of Biden’s speech, Ng had agreed that Chung and Stand News were correct.
Near the end of Wednesday’s hearing, the judge asked Eu to clarify the changing influence of digital media in the modern age, and the effect of the echo chamber phenomenon.
“It’s cheaper to start up an online news platform… Isn’t it right that anyone could do it?” Kwok asked.
Eu, saying that Stand News was an officially registered news outlet and abided by a code of ethics for journalists, said the defence could only defend for the 17 allegedly seditious articles published by Stand News, not all the “unhealthy news content” available online.
“If it was deemed a problem, the government can regulate it later… but this is not what the court should be dealing with today,” Eu said, sounding concerned.
She added that most traditional newspapers would upload their news reports online, and that readers tended to read newspapers that held their political stance, too.
At the end of her closing argument, Eu told the court that a conviction and any length of imprisonment should be deemed disproportional for the two journalists. “We sincerely hope your honour would acquit the two defendants,” she said.
2021 arrests and outlet closure
The 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, acting chief editor Lam and parent company Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited were charged.
Advocacy groups, the UN, and Western countries criticised the arrests as a sign of declining media freedoms, while then-security chief John Lee condemned “bad apples” who “polluted” press freedom following the raids.
The trial began last October with the court considering 17 allegedly seditious articles.