Under the principle of One Country, Two Systems, Hong Kong enjoys information and speech freedom away from the tyranny of Great Firewall and political prosecution in China.
However, legal harassment can be as harmful as political prosecution. In the past two years, a number of websites and online forums have been prosecuted by a local corporate, Oriental Press Group, for talking about the suspected drug-dealing history of two of its founding members.
In the past few years, the Oriental Press Group has kept sending out legal documents to domain owners, web-hosting ISPs making defamation claims. It has also sued about a dozen website operators for defamation, to name a few examples here:
The Chinese Wikipedia Website by Wikimedia Foundation
The Encyclopedia of Virtual Communities in Hong Kong by Wikia Inc.
Hong Kong Golden Forum by Fevaworks Solutions Limited
inmediahk.net by inmediahk.net Limited
Hong Kong's libel law
In Hong Kong, defamation is civil case, which means once a person has money to hire a lawyer, they can take legal action against anyone who makes open comment on them. The plaintiff has the responsibility to prove that what they have said are facts in order to successfully defend themselves. However, in other jurisdictions, such as in the U.S, the prosecutor has to provide evidence to prove what the plaintiff's comments do not have factual base.
The “defamation articles” pursued after by the Oriental Press Group are mainly about the drug trafficking history of its corporate founders – Ma Sik Chun and Ma Sik Yu. The two brothers was prosecuted by the Hong Kong Government in 1977 but jumped the bail and escaped to Taiwan in 1978. The incident was widely reported in local newspapers in the 70s [see jpg].
In order to stop websites and netizens from talking about the ignoble history, the Oriental Press Group starts prosecuting local and overseas websites and ISPs.
Charge against Wikimedia Foundation
In the case of Chinese Wikipedia, the Wikimedia Foundation, as an overseas registered company, had ignored the court summon and was absent from the trial. As a result the Oriental Press Group got a favorable ruling on paper, including damage claim and an injunction order in Aug 2010. Of course, the Hong Kong court's ruling cannot be executed in another jurisdiction, in the case of Wikimedia Foundation, in California.
For overseas registered company, it is comparatively easy to deal with such kind of legal harassment. So far, the so-called defamatory articles have not been removed from the Chinese Wikipedia website and the Wikia.com. However, for Hong Kong based company, especially those with very little finance resource, it is very intimidating.
The case of Hong Kong Golden Forum
Fevaworks, the operator of Golden Forum has spent an estimated amount of more than half a million Hong Kong dollars to defend themselves against the Oriental Press Group. Since it is rather difficult for ordinary citizens to present evidences that Ma Sik Chun and Ma Sik Yu have indeed committed the crime of drug trafficking and use the money to found the Oriental Press Group (as they have jumped the bail and have not been put on court for proper trial), the lawyer of Golden Forum defended the case with “innocent dissemination”. Eventually, the court ruled in favor of Fevaworks for two of the allegations and found the operator liable on one occasion when they took some eight months to remove the messages. The website operator has to pay a HKD100,000 damage cost to the Oriental Press Group.
However, the Oriental Press Group has continued to sue the website operator for 22 other defamation occasions and demanded the operator to disclose emails and I.P of the netizens involved. Such act, if successful, would destroy the online community in Golden Forum which has been very critical of the government and active in producing political satires against the Hong Kong government and pro-China political party.
The case of inmediahk.net
As a not for profit citizen media website, inmediahk.net's operator, inmediahk Limited (a locally registered company), cannot even afford to hire a lawyer to represent the company in the court. The case is now in process without any representative. In order to protect the website from further legal abuse, the website owner has reassigned an overseas operator, inmediahk LLC (registered in Nevada) to manage the website in early May 2011. However, a week ago, the U.S based ISP (RackSpace) that hosts the website has also received some legal documents from the Oriental Press Group and subsequently suspended the website for about 12 hours [The operator, inmediahk LLC, has to bare part of the responsibility as it has missed the urgent email sent by RackSpace]. Fortunately, upon some explanations, Rackspace has instantly restored the website back online.
Don't be intimidated
The intention for writing this post is to explain the current situation in Hong Kong and hence urge overseas ISPs or blog hosting websites not to be intimidated by the legal documents issued by the Oriental Press Group. It is a legal farce but unfortunately has resulted in a silencing effect in the local online world.