Red line exists between sedition, press freedom

Stand News decided to shut down immediately after police raided its offices and arrested seven individuals connected to it on suspicion of conspiracy to publish seditious material that incited hatred and violence against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government. While some described the arrest as a repression on Hong Kong’s journalistic freedom, others applauded it.

The raid was portrayed by The New York Times as “yet another government crackdown on the city’s once-vibrant independent press” in a significant report. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken of the United States urged Beijing and “Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s free and independent media and to immediately release those journalists and media executives who have been unjustly detained and charged”.

In actuality, Stand News was raided for allegedly promoting extremist ideologies and inciting violence, not for reporting political news or criticizing the Hong Kong SAR government, as it is permitted under the Basic Law. Media who undermine the rule of law, such as Stand News were described as “the black sheep tarnishing … press freedom” by the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in the HKSAR, contrary to Blinken’s claim.

We have the right to express ourselves as we would like, but that right does not extend to encouraging abhorrence and violence against others

In 2016, the US’ Huffington Post senior editor Nick Baumann reported that the FBI had launched an investigation into him after he had tweeted a “joke” on Twitter that read, “I love my job working at a voting site in Washington DC destroying Trump ballots”. The FBI discovered no evidence that Baumann had committed a crime after an investigation. However, the fact that the FBI was alerted to Baumann’s tweet and decided to launch an investigation is sufficient proof that the US, like any other country, has laws and regulations governing and limiting what can be posted online.

Furthermore, in October 2020, the US government suspended more than 90 purportedly Iranian-run “false news” websites. Among them was the website for Press TV, Iran’s state-run English-language news program. While the defendants in Hong Kong are given open trials and have the ability and opportunity to defend themselves, media outlets in the US have been shut down by government edict without a single trial. This begs the question of whether the US has genuine journalistic independence.

Additionally, the majority of us recall how outraged the US was during the 2016 presidential election, when Russia was accused of interfering with the election through hacking and propaganda. Russia was accused of exploiting social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to promote false material in an attempt to influence and impact the US election. Despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter were not taken offline as a result of this accusation, the US government strongly denounced them. Members of Congress interrogated Facebook and Twitter CEOs at hearings, criticizing the social media giants for their election meddling. As a result, they were compelled to restrict their content in order to “combat” news that might infuriate the US government.

Here are some questions to ponder for the Hong Kong SAR government critics: Is a news organization’s deliberate incitement to sedition still regarded as press freedom? Isn’t it vital to distinguish between critical reporting and encouragement to bigotry and brutality? Every country, including the US, where the First Amendment guarantees press freedom, prohibits and makes unlawful incitement to violence and hatred. So what makes Hong Kong any different from the rest of the world?

The bottom line is that journalists, like any other member of the public, are subject to the law. They have no right to foment hatred and violence with the expectation of getting away with it. The media outlet, as well as individuals who incited the hatred, should be held accountable. It makes no difference whether the media outlet is local or international. It should be treated and dealt with in the same manner as any global media organization.

It is crucial to note that freedom of expression does not imply freedom from responsibilities or liabilities. We have the right to express ourselves as we would like, but that right does not extend to encouraging abhorrence and violence against others. Freedom is not the ability to do whatever we desire; rather, it is the ability to make decisions on what we do and do not wish to do. We must ask ourselves: What kind of society do we aspire to be a part of? Do we want to live in a culture in which everyone can say whatever they want, even if it incites bigotry and destruction? Or would we rather live in a society where media outlets and individuals are held responsible and accountable for the content they publish and broadcast on the internet? A distinction must be drawn between press freedom and the promotion of hostility and propaganda. This is a line that should never be crossed.

Though I concur that press freedom is necessary and essential for any healthy society, it is distressing to see the term “freedom” being used to legitimize and justify immoral actions and behavior. Make no mistake: No one should be above the law; it is the law that has prevented us from becoming barbarians. Freedom must always be accompanied with rules, regulations and limitations; otherwise, the term freedom allows individuals to perform and engage in undesirable behavior and activities with the belief that no consequences or ramifications would ever arise, no matter how diabolical or heinous the actions may be. If the law is broken in the name of liberty, there should always be repercussions.

It’s uncertain whether executives of Stand News will be found guilty of incitement to hatred and violence at this point. If proved guilty, I believe it should be treated and held accountable in the same manner as any other media organization worldwide. It is crucial to allow the rule of law to take its course. We ought to place our trust in our judicial system to determine whether Stand News has overstepped its bounds.

The author is founder of Save HK and a Central Committee member of the New People’s Party.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.