HKU council controversy

Leaks ‘in the public domain’: Hong Kong court extends HKU gag order but it no longer covers future meetings

Court ban on publishing university council deliberations will go on, but cover shorter time frame

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2015, 3:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2015, 4:32pm

The High Court extended a gag order sought by the University of Hong Kong yesterday to continue banning publication of information about its governing council's discussion - though the time frame it covered was curtailed.

Some supporters of media freedom deemed the revised interim injunction "acceptable", but the Journalists Association, which joined the hearing as an interested party, urged HKU to drop its legal action altogether.

The order, in effect until the next hearing on November 24, now applies to "persons unknown" who possess information about the five HKU council meetings held since June. It does not protect future council business as the original order would.

READ MORE: Judge 'concerned' over Hong Kong University's gag order as city's media prepare to fight for press freedom

Ip Kin-yuen, the education-sector lawmaker who also joined the hearing as an interested party, voiced relief outside court.

"The scope of the ban is now much narrower," Ip said.

"It is good for press freedom and freedom of speech, and the development of HKU."

The current order was revised from one issued last Friday that had banned Commercial Broadcasting and "persons unknown" from publishing details about the council's business.

Council chairman Dr Leong Che-hung obtained that order in HKU's name after the station aired two recordings of a September closed-door discussion about democracy supporter Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun's candidacy for a key managerial post that ended with him being voted down. Critics said the council's move was politically motivated.

In the two leaked clips, council members Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and Leonie Ki Man-fung were heard criticising Chan's academic qualifications and personal integrity.

The revised order declares those two recordings and their transcripts are already in the public domain and can be published.

The ban is now confined to information that has not yet been leaked from the five council meetings between June 30 - the day Chan's appointment was first discussed - and yesterday, as narrowed down by Mr Justice Godfrey Lam Wan-ho and the interested parties.

No audio recordings, agenda or papers of those meetings must be published.

Besides Ip and the association, the Chinese-language Apple Daily, HKU law student Mark Lee Hei-shun and Marcus Lau Yee-ching, chief editor of HKU student publication Undergrad, joined the litigation yesterday.

All five parties, sharing similar arguments, opposed HKU's request to adjourn the case. They said the order should instead be discharged because the plaintiff "has no authority" to sue.

Leong had said it was his own initiative to seek legal help and fellow council members were not consulted, they noted.

"We looked up the HKU Ordinance - only the council collectively could instruct counsel and solicitors to act for the university," Martin Lee Chu-ming SC, for Apple Daily, said.

They also said HKU had failed to disclose key information to the court, including the principles of accountability and openness enshrined in the code of conduct for council members.

Student union president Billy Fung Jing-en showed up as an observer. After the hearing, Ip said Leong, whose term expired last night, had "left behind a mess for HKU".