Verdict clearing Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai of intimidating reporter ‘perverse’, appealing prosecutors argue
The decision to clear Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying of intimidating a reporter from a rival newspaper four years ago was “perverse”, prosecutors appealing against the verdict told the High Court on Friday.
Lai, 73-year-old founder of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, was found not guilty last year of one count of criminal intimidation, which alleged he had verbally threatened an Oriental Daily News reporter during a 2017 Victoria Park vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Lai is currently serving a 20-month jail term for his roles in three unauthorised demonstrations during the 2019 anti-government protests.
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He is also facing collusion charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
During the August 2020 intimidation trial, the reporter testified that Lai had sworn at him and threatened to find someone to “mess (him) up”, after he took pictures and videos of the tycoon.
But magistrate May Chung Ming-sun sided with the defence in finding Lai had lashed out on the spur of the moment after being followed by the reporter for years, and had used a Chinese expression that could hold a variety of meanings without connoting an intent to inflict injury.
Chung also noted the reporter had responded to the alleged threat with a smile and did not appear alarmed.
On Friday, prosecutor Priscilia Lam Tsz-ying argued the magistrate had erred both in finding the word “mess” ambiguous given the context and in determining that Lai lacked the intent to alarm the reporter.
“We are appealing against the case, because we say the decision was perverse,” Lam said.
“The magistrate clearly misdirected herself, misunderstood the facts and took into account irrelevant considerations.”
In particular, Lam said Chung had erred in ruling there were long-held grudges between Lai and the reporter, as there was no evidence of conflict between them over the years.
But Mr Justice Andrew Chan Hing-wai questioned why the court should not take into account the frictions and conflicts between the two papers.
“Why not?” the judge asked. “As you’ve pointed out, context and circumstances are important.”
Lam replied that it was irrelevant, adding that a director of a company should not take out his frustrations on the staff of another, regardless of what happened in their business dealings.
“If a person crosses that particular line, there should be appropriate sanctions and punishment,” Lam said. Otherwise, she added, the court would be sending the message that it was acceptable, something that could encourage others to follow suit.
Lam said the case also had the additional context of press freedom, as the reporter was simply discharging his duties by taking photographs at a public event and had done nothing to provoke Lai.
If Lai wanted to avoid being photographed, Lam said, he could have quietly walked away, left the event early or hid in the washroom.
Defence counsel Peter Duncan SC countered that Chung had considered all evidence carefully and comprehensively, as reflected by her reasons for the verdict, and was fully entitled to reach those conclusions.
He submitted that Chung did not misdirect herself, nor did she misunderstand the evidence in a material way.
“There’s no basis to disturb the finding,” Duncan continued.
The court has reserved its decision.
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