Hong Kong Cites WhatsApp Chats With Media to Deny Critic’s Bail

Hong Kong prosecutors cited an ex-lawmaker’s WhatsApp chats with reporters from foreign news outlets in a successful bid to deny her bail, raising new concerns about the implications of a China-imposed national security law for free speech in the Asian financial hub.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker Claudia Mo’s private conversations with staff from the BBC, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were among the evidence submitted by prosecutors last month during her bail hearing on national security charges, according a filing published Friday. High Court Judge Esther Toh kept Mo in jail under a provision that denies bail “unless the judge has sufficient grounds for believing” the person won’t continue to endanger national security.

The case illustrates how interactions between foreigners and locals have grown more perilous in the former British colony, which was guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly and the press under a “one country, two systems” framework implemented after the 1997 handover. Although prosecutors previously cited media tycoon Jimmy Lai’s published interviews with global media to support collusion allegations against him, the arguments against Mo go further to include criticizing the government in conversations.

Hong Kong Cites WhatsApp Chats With Media to Deny Critic’s Bail

“Hong Kong is quickly becoming a place where criticisms of the government can be interpreted as a threat to the national security by the court,” said former pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung. “The judgment creates a chilling effect that communications with foreign correspondents can be deemed as a potential crime.”

A representative of Hong Kong’s government didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

In the texts, which the government said they recovered from Mo’s phone, she is quoted criticizing the use of arrests to intimidate political opponents and a push by police to encourage citizens to report potential lawbreakers. “The new security law and the spate of arrests have worked as a scare tactic, probably fairly successfully -- at sending a persistent political chill around the city,” Mo told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal in October, according to the filing.

‘Highly Influential’

Prosecutor Maggie Yang also cited two interviews Mo gave Bloomberg Television before the national security law’s enactment. In an October 2019 appearance, she praised U.S. legislation that would reconsider the city’s special trade status. In another May 2020 interview, she said China’s looming security measure “marks the end of Hong Kong.”

Mo “remained vocal and highly influential in both local and international platforms, and had always maintained close connection with the foreign diplomats of various countries,” Yang said, according to the filing. Toh, the judge, accepted Yang’s argument that there were insufficient grounds for believing Mo wouldn’t commit future offenses.

“I have always had the upmost respect for journalists, particularly those reporting the news impartially and reflecting the situation accurately and without bias,” Toh said before issuing her ruling.

Subversion Charges

Mo was one of the Hong Kong Legislative Council’s most outspoken lawmakers before she joined other opposition members in resigning last year to protest the ouster of pro-democracy legislators. She was among 47 prominent opposition figures charged with subversion in March over an election campaign last year which authorities subsequently described as an illegal plot to paralyze the government.

The security law, which the National People’s Congress enacted June 30 without public debate, imposes broadly worded bans on subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, with sentences as long as life in prison. The measure has drawn sanctions from the U.S. and condemnations from the U.K., which argues that China is in breach of its 1984 handover agreement.

While Chinese authorities argue the security law has successfully prevented unrest of the sort that gripped Hong Kong for much of 2019, there are also signs that Beijing’s actions have shaken confidence in the future of the international financial center. More than 40% of individual members surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong last month said they might leave the city, with most of those citing the security law as a concern.

Several major international news organizations, including Bloomberg News, have established regional offices in Hong Kong because of its proximity to China, large financial markets and liberal business laws. Some including the New York Times and Washington Post have announced plans to relocate staff elsewhere in the region since the passage of the security law.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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