Stand News abused role as watchdog to incite sedition

There is no such thing as a “free press”. Every publication and broadcaster throughout the world must abide by the law of the land and, in particular, laws regarding libel and national security. So it is no surprise that the online publication Stand News’ directors, editors and reporters have been arrested and are facing charges of sedition after they allegedly published seditious material in violation of the law. Other charges are likely to follow.

Western press and politicians were quick to express “concern” over and condemn the arrests and demand the immediate release of those taken into custody. The Ottawa government in Canada sought freedom for one of its detained nationals — pop singer Denise Ho Wan-see — while the UK government sought the release of barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, a UK citizen. Both were board members of Stand News until their resignations in June.

Ronson Chan Ron-sing, Stand News deputy assignment editor and the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was not among those arrested but said police confiscated his computer, cellphone, tablet, press pass and bank records during a search of his home.

Sedition, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the use of words or actions that are intended to encourage people to oppose a government.” Synonyms include treason, riots, insurrection, etc. It is a word not to be taken lightly.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken maintained in The Guardian newspaper that “journalism is not sedition.” How wrong he was (as with most things). Journalism allows for freely criticizing a government’s misdeeds — real or imagined. But journalism cannot and must not encourage people to overthrow a government.

The US state-controlled Voice of America said that the raid raised more concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong, whose constitutional document, the Basic Law, has enshrined various “freedoms”.

But press freedom has not eroded after the return of Hong Kong to China. Journalists here can continue to write whatever they like. They can criticize the government for any wrongdoing or maladministration. But they must keep within the law. The media has the privilege of being the watchman on social and economic issues within a community, but this privilege should not be abused. That is universal. Sedition laws, as applied in Hong Kong, are clearly defined as they are in Australia, the US, Canada, the UK and elsewhere and there are no exceptions.

Sedition coverage in these countries does not materialize because their media have the sophistication to realize that sedition, subversion, and any action impinging on a country’s sovereignty are against the law. This is something which the Hong Kong media must learn. India is another place that has been forced to apply sedition charges against publications that flout the law.

The Hong Kong law enforcement authorities have seen it fit to bring charges against Stand News as they had done with Apple Daily last June. It is now for the courts to decide if the defendants are guilty or not. It is not for the media or politicians to pass judgment because they are not privy to all the facts of the case.

Stand News was aware of its shortcomings when it switched to paying its staff in advance (at the beginning of the month) and stopped receiving subscriptions and donations the day before the arrests.

Stand News’ UK bureau chief, Yeung Tin-shui said it would immediately cease operations and he would step down from his position. The office was established recently to follow up on Hong Kong residents who moved to the country using the British National (Overseas) route.

Steve Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Department, told reporters that Stand News had published news and commentaries inciting hatred against the authorities. He said some of the articles lied about protesters missing during the city’s 2019 social unrest or being sexually harassed, which he called “factually baseless” and “malicious”.

He added that some articles falsely claimed the Communist Party of China extended its powers through the city’s independent courts or called for foreign sanctions.

During his media briefing, Li questioned why Stand News had opened a branch in the UK and the source of its $7.8 million in assets. He said the police will probe whether the media has colluded with foreign forces.

Interestingly, both Ho and Ng, directors managing the Stand News’ cache of assets, were also trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which spent $32.4 million mainly on court costs for 2,221 defendants facing riot-related charges. The trust ceased operations last October with a balance of $1 million seized by the authorities.

Ho, a career activist, has addressed the US Congress and the UN seeking sanctions against Hong Kong and has appeared at the Oslo Freedom Forum advocating violent protests.

The National Security Department is investigating whether foreign funding was used in the accounts of Stand News, Apple Daily, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund and other riot-related organizations.

The author is a former chief information officer of Hong Kong government, a PR and media consultant and veteran journalist.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.