A Beijing-funded publisher has been ordered to pay HK$250,000 (US$32,000) in damages to a Hong Kong press group for defamatory remarks in a book which alleged it had taken money from the United States to support the 2014 Occupy Movement.
The High Court also dismissed the author’s defence that she had taken reasonable steps to verify the truthfulness of her claim, after she admitted in the witness box the accusation was based on hearsay.
The lawsuit centred on the book Occupy Central – A Perspective, published in February 2015. Its publisher, Joint Publishing (HK) Co. Ltd., is owned by Beijing’s Liaison Office through a number of local and mainland companies.
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The book’s author, Kwan Sau-king – better known by her pen name Yu Fei – took a critical view of the 79-day protest, sparked by Beijing’s decision to adopt a tightly-controlled framework for what would have been Hong Kong’s first election of a city leader via universal suffrage. Protesters occupied major thoroughfares in the city before the High Court granted an injunction order ending the demonstration.
In the book, Kwan alleged the Independent Commentators Association (ICA), founded by 14 local journalists and pundits, had received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States to “selectively report the facts” about the movement, while publishing comments and viewpoints “partial towards the demonstrators”.
The association sued the publisher and Kwan for defamation in 2015, saying the remarks implied it had been under the control of foreign forces.
During the trial, Kwan said she had relied on four “reliable” sources of information in making her allegation. One was a photo of an ICA founding member published on Speakout HK, a pro-Beijing news platform founded by supporters of former city leader Leung Chun-ying. The photo’s caption said the group had been funded by the United States.
But Kwan acknowledged she had no knowledge of who wrote the caption or when the picture was first uploaded.
She also supported her claim by saying the ICA shared common members with the Hong Kong Journalistic Association, an affiliated member of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, a group she alleged was funded by the US-based democracy group. She confessed, however, that she “lacked resources and time to carry out verification”.
In Monday’s ruling, Deputy High Court Judge Richard Khaw Wei-kiang SC held that the remarks in question were libelous, and neither the publisher nor author had offered a reasonable excuse for their publication.
“It is clear from the evidence adduced by both defendants that they have failed to take any reasonable steps to verify the [allegation],” Khaw said.
The judge also banned the publisher and author from making the same allegation against the plaintiff in the future.
In a statement, the ICA praised Monday’s ruling, saying it had safeguarded the group’s reputation, while reiterating it had never received funds from foreign organisations. “We need a society with free speech, but everyone’s comments should be based on verified facts,” the group said.
The Post has contacted Joint Publishing (HK) seeking comment.