Hong Kong: UK judges must stand up for media freedom ahead of Jimmy Lai’s appeal

Hong Kong: UK judges must stand up for media freedom ahead of Jimmy Lai’s appeal - Media

Photo: Magnet larry, CC

Ahead of Jimmy Lai’s appeal hearing in Hong Kong on 24 June, ARTICLE 19 calls for the publisher and democracy activist’s immediate and unconditional release. We also call for Lord David Neuberger to resign from his role as Non-Permanent Judge at the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, and to stop lending credibility to a system that neither respects human rights nor upholds the rule of law. The UK judges still sitting on Hong Kong’s highest court must join media freedom and freedom of expression advocates and speak out against the serious decline in freedoms in Hong Kong. 

Barbora Bukovská, Senior Director for Law and Policy at ARTICLE 19, commented 

‘Authorities in Hong Kong are making their intentions clear: they will systematically dismantle the freedoms that people in Hong Kong once enjoyed. The global community must speak out about this steady, unmistakable move towards totalitarianism. In particular, Lord Neuberger and other UK judges who still sit on Hong Kong’s highest court must make a stand by stepping down and refusing to be complicit in sham trials and human rights violations.’

Jimmy Lai, a British citizen, is appealing against a conviction for organising an unauthorised assembly in violation of  a Public Order Ordinance along with six others.  

Since 2020, Lai has been the target of ongoing judicial and political harassment following his participation in pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019 that saw as many as 2 million people take to the streets to call for democratic change. He has been incarcerated since August 2020, and since then, authorities have arbitrarily denied him the right to choose a lawyer of his choice and in the past even hinted that Lai could be transferred to mainland China.  

ARTICLE 19 has objected against Lai’s arrest and politically motivated prosecution, aimed at silencing dissent and independent media in Hong Kong. His case represents a major assault on civil liberties and the rule of law in the city. Keeping Jimmy Lai behind bars serves no legitimate purpose other than to intimidate and punish those who dare to speak out against the erosion of democracy and promised autonomy in Hong Kong. 

Worryingly, among the judges hearing the appeal is Lord Neuberger, the former President of the United Kingdom Supreme Court and Chair of the High-Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom.     

While ARTICLE 19 hopes Lord Neuberger will advocate for Lai’s freedom, we anticipate the ruling will not go in Lai’s favour. In any case, we believe that Lord Neuberger’s place at the court is wholly untenable. As an apparent advocate for media freedom, and in light of Hong Kong’s move towards a totalitarian government and society, it is only appropriate for him to resign from its highest court. 

Former UK supreme court justices Jonathan Sumption and Lawrence Collins resigned on 6 June due to what they termed the ‘political situation’ in Hong Kong, a move that was welcomed by democracy campaigners. Four days later, former Canadian Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin announced that she would step down in July. She will be the seventh Overseas Non-Permanent Judge to resign since the passage of the National Security Law in 2020. Two other British judges remain on the top court with Neuberger: Lennie Hoffmann and Nicholas Phillips. 

In light of ongoing and persistent attacks on media freedom and freedom of expression, ARTICLE 19 calls on the UK judges still sitting on Hong Kong’s highest court to withdraw themselves from what has become a sham judicial system. They must also stand for the principles of judicial independence and the rule of law, which are fundamental to the legal profession. 

Background: Dire situation for freedom of expression in Hong Kong

ARTICLE 19 has consistently highlighted the deterioration of rights in Hong Kong since the 2019 protests, the arrests that followed, and authorities’ introduction and use of national security laws to censor dissent. 

In May, three Hong Kong Court of Appeals justices ruled in favour of the government’s 2023 appeal to allow a ban on broadcasting or distributing the protest anthem ‘Glory to Hong Kong’, a reversal of the High Court’s July 2023 opinion. ARTICLE 19 warned such a ban risked having a chilling effect on free expression, and a particularly silencing effect on online expression by compelling internet intermediaries to prevent access to the song on their platforms. The judgement also includes provisions that raise questions about the risk of international censorship outside of Hong Kong borders.