A Hong Kong court on Wednesday cleared media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying of charges of intimidating a reporter from a rival newspaper, with the magistrate ruling the journalist had been dishonest about the 2017 encounter and appeared unconcerned in video footage of the incident.
In acquitting the Apple Daily founder, Magistrate May Chung Ming-sun at West Kowloon Court accepted the defence counsel’s argument that Lai had an “instinctive outburst” when confronting the Oriental Daily reporter at the annual June 4 candlelight vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
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Chung said the reporter, rather than looking worried, seemed to laugh off Lai’s remarks in footage of the incident, suggesting that he was not at all frightened by the 72-year-old.
The magistrate rejected the reporter’s testimony that he had only feigned laughter in an attempt to calm Lai down, accusing the journalist of being dishonest and taking him to task for what she characterised as an evasive attitude in answering questions about the exchange.
“It appeared [the reporter] was treating it as a joke, or even mocking [Lai],” Chung said. “A person who’s just been alarmed by a threat would not act in this way.”
Lai was accused of swearing at the reporter and saying he would find someone to “mess with” him, after the latter took pictures and videos of the tycoon.
I cannot say to any degree that the [alleged victim’s] symptoms were either directly or indirectly related to the incident on June 4
Magistrate May Chung
The reporter, who was granted anonymity by the court, testified he had suffered from adjustment disorder – a condition stemming from stressful events – and a depressed mood since the incident.
Prosecutors alleged Lai’s remarks constituted threats of injury with intent to cause alarm. Defence lawyers countered by questioning the ethics of Oriental Daily, describing the incident as an impulsive “scolding” following years of pressure the Apple Daily rival and its employees had placed on Lai.
In her ruling, Chung accepted Lai’s explanation to police that he had lashed out on the spur of the moment, temporarily losing his temper and self-control after realising he was being filmed by the reporter.
The magistrate ruled that the expression “mess with”, which Lai said in Cantonese, could hold a variety of meanings that did not necessarily indicate an intent to inflict injury. She also rejected the prosecution’s claim that Lai had uttered the words “to find someone”, as the phrase could not be heard in the footage.
Chung additionally pointed out that the reporter did not seem alarmed by Lai’s comments, and he had responded to the alleged intimidation with a smile.
While the magistrate did not cast doubt on the accuracy of medical findings regarding the reporter’s mental condition, she said she had “great reservations” as to whether his symptoms stemmed solely from the encounter.
She suggested the long-standing feud between Oriental Daily and Apple Daily, as well as the reporter’s belief the justice department had failed to initiate a prosecution in a timely manner, might also have contributed to the negative emotions he had experienced over the years.
“I cannot say to any degree that the symptoms were either directly or indirectly related to the incident on June 4,” Chung said.
“I accept that [Lai] was telling the truth. He didn’t think in detail about what he was saying or what he meant by it.”
After the verdict, Lai was seen smiling and bumping elbows with Apple Daily CEO Cheung Kim-hung inside the courtroom. Lai was surrounded by the press as he left court, but did not respond to questions.
Criminal intimidation is punishable by two years in prison and a HK$2,000 fine (US$258) when tried at the magistrate court level.
Thursday’s ruling at West Kowloon Court means Lai keeps his criminal record clear for now, although he still faces proceedings stemming from last year’s social unrest, which was sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Lai is among 13 opposition figures and activists facing prosecution on incitement charges over this year’s June 4 vigil, which police had banned citing social-distancing rules to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
In a separate case, Lai and 14 high-profile opposition figures, including veteran democracy campaigner and barrister Martin Lee Chu-ming, face a total of 61 charges in connection with a series of anti-government marches on August 18, August 31, October 1 and October 20.
More from South China Morning Post:
- State-owned Hong Kong convenience store chain stops selling Apple Daily newspaper, weeks after founder Jimmy Lai arrested under security law
- Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai denies violating national security law, calling accusations an ‘excuse to clamp down’ by Beijing