If a fact-finding commission were to look into the 2019 violent social unrest, it would certainly find that most of the young people who took part in the wanton destruction of both public and private properties and fought our police had been brainwashed into an irrational hatred of the Communist Party of China and the Hong Kong Special Administration Region government. They were manipulated into thinking that it was only through creating such massive disorder that their idealism could be realized. Indeed, once the police were able to apprehend the black hands behind the chaos and expose them for what they are, many of these young and naive rioters expressed remorse and admitted to being misled. So, who has been trying to brainwash them? In my view, there are at least three groups of people — i.e., the opposition politicians exercising their influence on their supporters, the education sector including teachers and professors nudging their students toward violent activism, and the anti-establishment media rationalizing or playing down the violence to advance their own political agenda.
Hence it is only right that the police instituted criminal proceedings against the senior management of Apple Daily, including its owner Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and its six former executives. Apart from the charges of colluding with a foreign power to endanger national security, they were also charged with “conspiring to print, publish and circulate seditious publications in a bid to spread hatred, to raise discontent, or incite other people to violence or other unlawful acts”. The case is now before the court, which means that there ought to be sufficient evidence to convince the public prosecutors in the Department of Justice to lay charges against them. The public will have the opportunity to make their own judgment when all evidence is unveiled before an open court in due course. This is the beauty of our legal system, where all prosecutions are conducted in a transparent and fair manner and according to the law.
For many years, especially during the 2019 riots, Stand News was the equivalent of Apple Daily in the social media sphere in spreading hatred through false news against China, and likely to be more influential when it comes to our youth, who hardly read printed newspapers these days and instead rely solely on social media for their daily news consumption
The recent police operations against Stand News should therefore not come as a surprise. For many years, especially during the 2019 riots, Stand News was the equivalent of Apple Daily in the social media sphere in spreading hatred through false news against China, and likely to be more influential when it comes to our youth, who hardly read printed newspapers these days and instead rely solely on social media for their daily news consumption. During the unrest, their reporters were often seen mingling with the rioters on the frontline, obstructing police operations and regularly complaining about alleged police brutality, making it the favorite social media platform among the young rioters. It is only to be expected that Stand News will be targeted by the police’s National Security Department. Thus, on Dec 29, a major police operation was conducted with the arrest of seven people tied to Stand News over an alleged conspiracy to publish seditious materials and the freezing of HK$61 million (US$7.8 million) in the company’s assets. Those arrested include the acting chief editor Patrick Lam Shiu-tung, former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and four former board members — the Cantopop star Denise Ho Wan-see, barrister Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, Christine Fang Meng-sang and Chow Tat-chi.
According to police, the investigation focused on 17 seditious articles Stand News published between July 2020 and November 2021, which were intended to instigate dissatisfaction among the public, incite violence and law-breaking behavior and stir up hatred against the HKSAR government, in violation of sections 9 and 10 of the Crimes Ordinance, Cap 200. There is also strong evidence to show that Stand News had allowed fugitives and overseas activists to use its platform to incite subversion and separatism activities in Hong Kong and call for foreign sanctions, seriously endangering national security, the police said.
As expected, some Western powers wasted no time in condemning the police arrests as a violation of press freedom, which included US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the European Union’s External Action Service and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong. However, they have intentionally chosen to overlook the first tenet that press freedom and freedom of speech are not absolute and not without limitations. As Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu commented: “Anybody who attempts to make use of media work as a tool to pursue their political purpose and contravenes the law, particularly offenses that endanger national security, they are the evil elements that damage press freedom.”
The Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China in the HKSAR said in its response, “Facts cannot be twisted!” So let’s examine the facts. As the police have emphasized repeatedly, the investigation is not targeted at press freedom but only on the 17 allegedly seditious articles published by Stand News. Although police have not yet revealed which articles these are, it is believed that one of them was published in May this year headlined “Viewing the future of Hong Kong’s resistance from the experience of resistance in Northern Ireland”, which openly suggested that Hong Kong should not rule out the use of paramilitary action as activists did in Northern Ireland to fight for their political beliefs.
The article obviously tried to draw a parallel between the Irish Republican Army fighting the British for secession of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom with the movement for Hong Kong independence. This is most disturbing! We should note that in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” from 1969 to 1997, a total of 3,428 people were killed, including 1,786 civilians, 389 IRA members and over 1,000 British soldiers and police officers. It boggles the mind that Stand News would be so callous as to try to incite Hong Kong residents to follow the deadly example of the IRA in taking up arms to fight for an independent Hong Kong! Has the world not learned from the disastrous consequences of Northern Ireland’s “troubles”? Would any sovereign state, including the UK, tolerate this in the name of press freedom?
This article triggered a protest march to the Police Headquarters. It is no coincidence that six of the eight board members of Stand News announced their resignation the following month and the media group took immediate steps to delete all its published articles prior to May 2021. Is this further evidence of guilt being hastily erased? Indeed, hours after the police operation, Stand News announced that it was ceasing operations, laying off all staff, and closed its websites and social media platform, likely a deliberate act to destroy all remaining incriminating evidence.
Apart from the seditious articles themselves, there are at least two other suspicious areas of national security violations. First, the police revealed that the company’s assets of HK$61 million have been frozen, which is the largest amount the department has ever dealt with. Police investigations indicated that most of the funds were transferred to the company in a surreptitious manner, obviously to avoid being traced. Police will undoubtedly investigate further into the sources of these funds to ascertain if they are foreign in origin.
Second, Stand News opened a bureau in the UK. Why would a bureau in the UK be set up when the media outlet mainly covers Hong Kong news? Is it a front for liaison with the UK government or to serve as a base to support the Hong Kong fugitives in pursuing their subversive activities overseas?
If anyone looks at the above facts objectively, the logical conclusion must be that it cannot be a case of proper exercise of media freedom but a genuine case of national security violations, which no government will tolerate. The Western criticism is another example of its double-standards approach in targeting China and its Hong Kong SAR.
The next target, in my opinion, should be the Hong Kong Journalists Association. We will not forget that during the 2019 riots, they abused their position by casually issuing accredited journalist passes to people who subsequently engaged in the riots against the police by posing as reporters, including a 12-year-old escorted away by police for conducting news reporting at the scene of an active protest. The HKJA even wrote a letter to United Nations organizations accusing Hong Kong police of using unreasonable force to quell riots and hinder journalists from discharging their duties, clearly with a view to discrediting the HKSAR government. The Association was also criticized by Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung for deploying members to give talks at schools in an attempt to promote their anti-establishment biased political views. The HKJA also failed to disclose details of their membership and funding sources.
All this highlights the urgency of the need to expedite the legislative process in connection with Article 23 of the Basic Law, in particular, to criminalize fake news that is designed to blacken the central and HKSAR governments, our law enforcement bodies and the judiciary.
The fact that our society is finally able to enjoy some peace and quiet and a return to some semblance of normalcy is a tribute to the salutary effects of the National Security Law for Hong Kong. Facts always speak louder than words! But we still must remain ever vigilant not to allow any unscrupulous media outlets to distort reality to hurt us!
The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space and a Council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
HONG KONG NEWS