Hong Kong justice department warns insulting judges online could amount to contempt of court
Warning comes amid a spate of online attacks against judge who jailed independence activist Edward Leung
Personal attacks or insulting comments about judges – even over social media – could undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and constitute contempt of court, the justice department said on Thursday.
The stern warning came as a spate of online abuse towards High Court judge Madam Justice Anthea Pang Po-kam began spreading following the jailing of independence activist Edward Leung Tin-kei for six years for his role in the 2016 Mong Kok riot, earlier this week.
In one case, internet users dug up information about Pang and made disparaging comments about her and her family, including references to her being the widow of a police officer, and wishing her “retribution” and “trouble”.
In a statement, the Department of Justice reminded the public to respect the rule of law and judicial independence, which it said was “one of the most important facets of the rule of law”.
“Whilst members of the public are entitled to, within the permissible legal boundaries, express one’s opinion rationally or engage in informed discussions about the court’s decision and related matters, this has to be done within the limit permitted by the law and with respect for judicial independence,” a spokesman said.
The online attacks attracted the concern of the judiciary on Wednesday, which then passed the case to the department for follow up.
“Personal or scandalous attacks or insulting comments on judges or acts undermining judicial independence or in contempt of court are absolutely forbidden,” the department added. “It is to be remembered that an accused is entitled to lodge an appeal against his sentence if he is dissatisfied with it.”
On Monday, Pang jailed Leung, 27, for six years and his co-defendant, Lo Kin-man, 31, for seven years for their roles in the Mong Kok riot. They were the most severe sentences handed down to protesters since the rioting offence was added to the city’s public order laws in 1970.
The Department of Justice said it had referred the matter to law enforcement agencies and would work closely with them to assess the case fairly in accordance with the Prosecution Code, applicable legal principles and relevant evidence.
This is not the first case of public vitriol directed against a judge following a controversial judgment.
Earlier this year, a Hong Kong woman was arrested for contempt of court for reportedly hurling abuse and racist remarks at Principal Magistrate Bina Chainrai outside court after she handed down a three-month sentence to retired police superintendent Frankly Chu for hitting a bystander with a baton during the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement protests.
The incident prompted Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li to warn the public against “unwarranted” or “arbitrary” criticism of the courts. “Any criticisms which are levelled against the judiciary should be on an informed basis” and “any unwarranted criticisms made against the rule of law cannot be of any benefit to the community,” he said.