Lawyers for Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying went after the ethics of a rival newspaper in court on Thursday, accusing it of harassing him and running insulting stories as the media tycoon’s trial for allegedly intimidating a reporter got under way.
Lai, 72, appeared at West Kowloon Court in the first trial since his arrest on February 28, when he was also accused of involvement in other cases. The current proceedings are unrelated to Lai’s more recent arrest earlier this month over accusations that he violated Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law.
Prosecutors have accused the Next Digital boss of swearing at and threatening a reporter from Oriental Daily, who was granted anonymity by the court, during the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on June 4, 2017.
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The prosecution’s opening statement said Lai “pointed his right finger at [the victim] and swore at [him] fiercely with foul language” after the reporter took pictures and videos of him. He then claimed that he had taken the reporter’s photos and would find someone to “mess with” him, the prosecution added.
One year after the encounter, Lai told police under caution that he believed the reporter had been following and filming him at close range in recent years in order to provoke him. He said his remarks had referred to taking legal action or filing a police report to stop the harassment.
Lai has denied one count of criminal intimidation, an offence punishable by two years’ prison and a HK$2,000 fine when it is tried at the magistrates’ courts.
What is at dispute before Magistrate May Chung Ming-sun is whether the words uttered by Lai were threats of injury to the reporter with intent to cause alarm to him.
The reporter, now an assignment editor at Oriental Daily, testified that he had been assigned to follow the media tycoon since the 2014 Occupy movement, and paid multiple visits to his residence in Ho Man Tin on a monthly basis.
He told the court that at 7pm on the day in question, he went to a bandstand at Victoria Park to film Lai taking part in a prayer session during the vigil alongside veteran democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming.
When the session was almost over, he said, Lai suddenly approached and cursed him at arm’s length, saying: “I’ll definitely find someone to mess with you. Don’t take photos of me so closely. Let me tell you, I’ve taken your photos.”
The reporter said: “When he scolded me, I was stunned at that time because we were so close [to each other]. I was scared that he would beat me, slap me or push me.”
The reporter was later diagnosed with adjustment disorder – a condition stemming from stressful events – and depressed mood, prosecuting counsel-on-fiat Priscilia Lam Tsz-ying said in her opening statement.
During cross-examination, defence counsel Peter Duncan SC questioned the professional ethics of Oriental Daily, saying its reporters had monitored Lai constantly and made every effort to portray him negatively.
The counsel pointed to a 2014 report in the paper that cited a Chinese metaphysician in predicting that Lai would “have health problems, become involved in endless gossips and get into trouble shortly” based on the signs shown by a withered cypress tree in front of his home.
Duncan referred to an obituary published by Oriental Daily in the same year that claimed that a man named “Lai Chi-ying” had passed away due to Aids and cancer.
In response, the reporter said his paper had based its reporting on facts and did not have any predetermined stance on Lai.
He also denied the paper was taking a veiled jab at Lai in the obituary, saying the piece appeared to have been placed as an advertisement, and the name of the deceased, which was written in Chinese, was different from Lai’s.
The trial is expected to last three days.