A prominent political activist and radio show host stood trial in Hong Kong on Thursday under colonial-era sedition laws, amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing.
Online talk-show host and Peoples Power activist Tam Tak-chi, 48, also known by his nickname Fast Beat, faces eight counts of sedition linked to slogans he either spoke or wrote between January and July 2020.
He is also being tried for "inciting an illegal assembly" and "disorderly conduct," after he gave a number of public speeches calling for the "liberation" of Hong Kong, some of which were peppered with Cantonese swear-words.
Tam stands accused of using the now-banned slogan of the 2019 protest movement, which was found to have "secessionist" intent in a separate trial this week under the national security law, "Free Hong Kong, revolution now!".
He is also accused of calling for Hong Kong's police force to be disbanded, saying the the authorities should "delay no more," a homonym for a Cantonese epithet involving the target's mother.
Tam allegedly also shouted: "Down with the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party (CCP)!"
While the authorities have already warned people not to use the slogan "Free Hong Kong, revolution now!", Tam's trial will likely lay down fresh "red lines" governing what speech the government regards as criminal. It is being conducted by national security judge Stanley Chan.
The trial was delayed pending Tuesday’s verdict in the case of motorcyclist Tong Ying-kit, who was found guilty of "terrorism" and "inciting secession" for flying the banned slogan from his motorbike during a protest against the national security law on July 1, 2020.
Judge Chan said he would likely apply the legal reasoning given in Tong's verdict to Tam's use of the "Free Hong Kong, revolution now!" slogan.
He also reprimanded some people attending the trial for "speaking loudly," implying that they could be held in contempt of court.
While he recognized that the verdict wasn't binding on the case, Chan said the High Court had provided "strong, highly applicable and persuasive guidance" on the slogan.
In the sweeping colonial-era legislation under which Tam's charges were brought, sedition is defined as any words that generate "hatred, contempt or dissatisfaction" with the government, or "encourage disaffection."
The law was passed under British rule in 1938, and is widely regarded as illiberal and anti-free speech. However, by the turn of the century, it had lain dormant on the statute books for decades, until being resurrected for use against opposition politicians, activists, and participants in the 2019 protest movement.
Police last week charged three speech therapists with "sedition" under the same law after they published a children's picture book about sheep trying to defend their village from wolves, a storyline that was deemed to glorify the 2019 protests and "incite hatred" against the authorities.
While anyone convicted of a national security offense under the National Security Law for Hong Kong could face up to a lifetime in prison, sedition carries a maximum sentence of two years' imprisonment for a first offense.
Meanwhile, Economic Journal co-founder and veteran columnist Lam Hang-chi said he would be giving up writing, due the unpredictability of risk under the national security law.
"We never know when [Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam] will say that you have crossed a red line or violated the national security law," CitizenNews editor and columnist Chris Yeung told RFA in response to the news. "You could lose your freedom before you even have a chance to plead, because you can be arrested with no chance of bail."
"It's entirely natural [that journalists are] thinking, should I carry on writing?"
Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said that a worsening political climate had made everyone start worrying.
"Even a very specifically used term could be deemed to have other meanings," Lau said. "These red lines aren't clearly defined; they're floaty, interdeterminate things."
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gigi Lee and Cheng Yut Yiu.