The government has dropped charges against guest speakers on a pirate radio station, despite pursuing a prosecution for more than five years.
Sixteen speakers on Citizens' Radio including "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau Wai-hing, Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip, were also granted costs by Acting Chief Magistrate Bina Chainrai at the Eastern Court yesterday.
The prosecution lawyer for the department of justice, Raymond Chang Hoi-chung, said the charges were dropped not because of a problem with the summonses. Rather, he said, it was felt that after a recent verdict in the Court of Final Appeal, it was not in the public interest to prosecute due to the "time lapse, the role played by the defendants and the likely penalty".
Three other defendants, who failed to turn up yesterday and were not legally represented, were asked to appear in court on February 18. The prosecution decided to withdraw their summons as well.
Outside court, Leung said the prosecutions had been a waste of time and money.
The dropping of the charges had exposed the Hong Kong government's practice of launching prosecutions whether or not there were sufficient grounds to do so, Leung said.
He said: "They should bear in mind our right of freedom of expression. It's actually guaranteed by Article 27. Anyone who uses the media to express themselves should not be prosecuted."
Last November the Court of Final Appeal ruled in favour of five pan-democrat politicians who were also being prosecuted for speaking on a Citizens' Radio discussion in Sai Yeung Choi Street South, Mong Kok, on April 20, 2008.
Chief Magistrate Tong Man had convicted and fined the five in 2009 under a section of the Telecommunications Ordinance that prohibits delivering any message for transmission by an unlawful telecommunications system.
But Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li said: "It seems unlikely that the legislature would have intended the criminalisation of the act of delivering a message to a piece of electronic equipment, rather than to a person."
While the group of 16 speakers no longer face prosecution, the eight operators of Citizens' Radio do still face prosecution for operating a radio station without a license.
The operators, including social activist "The Bull" Tsang Kin-shing, Yang Kuang and Lo Hom-chau, were asked to turn up in court again on May 20.
The trial is expected to last for 10 days.
The magistrate said: "Any preliminary issues you want to deal with, including any arguments of the Basic Law, can be reported to the trial judge [on that day]."
Hong Kong's law requires radio operators to obtain approval from the government before they can begin broadcasting.