Freedom vs. Defamation

On September 26th, 2016, lawyers for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (CY Leung) released a letter accusing Apple Daily, a liberal Chinese-language newspaper, of defamation. Known for its sensationalist coverage of political affairs and harsh criticism of Leung’s leadership, the anti-establishment Daily published an editorial imploring newly elected Legislative Council members to hold Leung accountable for a suspicious HK$50 million payment from the Australian company UGL Limited to Leung in 2012. The article prompted Leung and his lawyers to demand an “unreserved retraction” from Apple Daily, and accuse the paper of perpetuating “malicious falsehood[s]” that “obstruct Mr CY Leung from exercising his fundamental right” to run for re-election in 2017.

Many fear that Leung’s threat to sue Apple Daily for its “malicious” actions is a violation of press freedom. A statement released in Chinese by the The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) condemned Leung for targeting the media and expressed shock towards the Chief Executive’s response to the article, advocating for the media’s right to freely hold and publish their opinions.

An article published on September 30th, 2016 by the South China Morning Post stated that “legal experts doubted Leung would be able to successfully sue Apple Daily, saying it would be difficult to establish a case of libel in a city that protects press freedom”.

Though Leung’s attempts to silence and censor his critics may ultimately be futile, his actions have nonetheless fueled an ongoing debate regarding the decline of press freedom in Hong Kong. While one may be prompted to challenge the validity of Apple Daily’s allegations of corruption, it is of equal importance to consider the following: What constitutes libel? How might an informed reader of the news distinguish fact from fiction? Is the use of defamation laws to silence journalists ever justified? How might a court of law reconcile this tension between libel laws and press freedom?

The discussion of these questions will hopefully allow readers and consumers to better understand the parameters of their rights, and exercise their freedoms to express and publish their opinions to the fullest extent.

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