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Hong Kong courts: a battleground for democracy

October 11, 2022
topics: Freedom of Expression
by: Marie Bröckling
located in: Hong Kong, China
tags: China, democracy, Hong Kong, press freedom, Xi Jinping

The recent lifting of reporting restrictions over a National Security case is a positive but insufficient development, human rights advocates warn.

For nearly two years, a group of elderly Hong Kongers has been gathering on the ground floor of the Kowloon Magistrate Court on weekday mornings. They line up and chat with one another and the security guards while waiting patiently to be let into the courtroom for the day.

Once inside, they sit on a wooden bench and follow the often heated but typically bureaucratic exchanges between lawyers and judges.

The regular court-goers, called 旁聽師 - which roughly translates into 'auditing masters' - are a familiar presence in the hundreds of trials that have been against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong since the 2019 anti-government protests. But they are far from the only ones who take an interest in the trials, and are often joined by the defendants’ family members as well as by foreign embassy staffers and journalists, which forces the court to open overflow areas with a live stream. 

"It is central that Hong Kong residents can get information on these trials," Cédric Alviani, East Asia bureau chief at Reporters without Borders, told FairPlanet. "People must know the details of what defendants are accused of."

The National Security Law 

In 2019, thousands of pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in Hong Kong over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that sought to send citizens back to China for court trials. Many democratic governments expressed support for the protestors, while those sympathetic to Beijing called for a crackdown on the violence and a return to order. 

A year after the protests erupted, Xi Jinping signed a national security bill into law on 30 June 2020 which bars any expression considered subversive, inciting or encouraging of secession, treason and collusion with foreign elements. Since then, hundreds of protestors, journalists, artists and other high-profile pro-democracy activists have been arrested and charged.

However, for a long time the general public had no insight into what transpired in some of the most high-profile trials against pro-democracy activists due to statutory reporting restrictions on media coverage, particularly on cases pertaining to the national security law.

Courtrooms have thus become one of the battlegrounds of press freedom in Hong Kong, and the regular court-goers, showing up morning after morning, have morphed into a symbol of the people's right to be informed (as well as of what sets Hong Kong apart from mainland China, where trials are typically held in closed doors). 

Designated National Security Law Judge Peter Law had enforced strict reporting restrictions on some high-profile cases, limiting coverage to only include the names of the magistrate, the defendants and their lawyers as well as the alleged offense, the court’s decision and future court dates.

Law had argued that negative media reports could jeopardise the trial.

As a result, coverage of these cases was often vague with interchangeable headlines. For example, local media would report that there was a legal dispute in the courtroom, but could not specify what the dispute was about. 

Critics argue that people's ability to follow and understand the judicial process it is a core feature of the legal system. Human rights group Amnesty International says that the lack of information on what behaviour can lead to an arrest under the national security law has created a climate of fear and silenced dissent. 

"Details of the National Security Law cases, especially on the accusations, are often shrouded in secrecy," said a spokesperson from Amnesty International’s China team. "This can exacerbate the already sweeping fear among the public who simply do not know what actions or opinions are criminalised under the vaguely worded National Security Law." 

Landmark ruling lifts reporting restrictions

In a landmark ruling in August, the High Court confirmed that reporting restrictions on committal proceedings must be lifted when requested by the defendant. The decision came in response to an application for judicial review filed by activist and barrister Chow Hang-tung involving one of several prominent national security cases.

Following a High Court review in August, journalists were allowed to report in full detail on cases that were previously placed under coverage restrictions.

"Lifting restrictions on reporting committal proceedings is important because it removes some opacity around these trials in which defendants often have few fair trial guarantees," a spokesperson from Amnesty International’s China team told FairPlanet.

Journalists are now allowed to report details in the city’s largest national security case of 47 democrats who are charged with conspiracy to commit subversion for organising an unofficial primary election in 2020. The group has been appearing in court for over a year, and most of the defendants have been held in custody for over 18 months. They face up to life in prison. 

Alviani, the East Asia bureau chief at Reporters Without Borders, cautions that Hong Kong could not be considered a place of open media, claiming that the recent lifting of restrictions is a small win for press freedom, but is not enough. 

"The court has to make the details of the accusations and the evidence seen in court available to the media," he said, "and it has to give equal opportunities to all journalists without discrimination."

Image by Samuel Wong.

Article written by:
Marie
Marie Bröckling
Author
Hong Kong China
The regular court-goers are a familiar presence in the hundreds of trials held against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong since the 2019 anti-government protests.
“It is central that Hong Kong residents can get information on these trials. People must know the details of what defendants are accused of.”
Journalists are now allowed to report details in the city’s largest national security case involving 47 democrats charged with conspiracy to commit subversion for organizing an unofficial primary election in 2020.
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