Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai was sympathetic towards frontline ‘valiant’ protesters in 2019, court hears

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Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai was sympathetic towards frontline ‘valiant’ protesters in 2019, court hears

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai was sympathetic towards frontline “valiant” protesters in 2019 and instructed his now-closed Apple Daily newspaper to produce coverage that facilitated public understanding of them, an ex-publisher has told Lai’s national security trial.

Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai at the West Kowloon court in Hong Kong on September 3, 2020. Photo: Isaac Lawrence/AFP.

“Valiant” refers to the frontline protesters who used non-peaceful means during the months-long pro-democracy unrest.

Chan Pui-man, the former associate publisher of Apple Daily who is testifying against Lai, told the court on Friday that the media mogul turned from being an advocate of peaceful demonstration to becoming sympathetic towards “non-peaceful means” during the 2019 protests.

“For example, on the occasion of the July 1 storming of the legislature… he would ask us to gather [the protesters’] thoughts, so that the public could understand or even sympathise with their actions,” said Chan, a defendant turned prosecution witness, in Cantonese.

See also: Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai had ‘final say’ over editorial direction at Apple Daily newspaper, court hears

On July 1, 2019, protesters broke into and vandalised the legislative complex following a huge march against a controversial bill that would have enabled the city to transfer fugitives to mainland China.

Chan said Lai was a proponent of the idea that there should be “unity” between valiant and peaceful protesters at that time because of his support towards the whole movement.

She added that she – and the print division of Apple Daily under her supervision – acted in accordance with Lai’s views during the protests, as she concluded her 15-day testimony at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building.

Apple Daily's ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.
Apple Daily’s ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the Beijing-imposed national security law and one count of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials under the colonial-era legislation.

Prosecutors allege that Lai used his tabloid to instigate hatred against the authorities in the wake of the anti-extradition bill movement, and to call for foreign sanctions against mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials after the enactment of the security law in 2020. The Beijing-imposed law also criminalised secession, subversion, and terrorism.

Earlier on Friday – the 36th day of the trial – lead defence lawyer Robert Pang presented to the court a front-page story that was run by Apple Daily’s sister publication Next Magazine in 2017, which Pang said featured an “unflattering photograph” of Lai, the founder of both publications.

Legal representative of Jimmy Lai outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 2, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Legal representatives of Jimmy Lai outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 2, 2024. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The court heard that Lai’s Next Digital group sold Next Magazine that year due to financial difficulties. Ahead of the sale, Pang said a front-page story, under a Chinese-language headline “Jimmy Lai selling out Next Magazine,” had suggested Lai had “betrayed” the publication, but that no employee was punished.

Chan said she was not involved in Next Magazine and was not aware of its business.

Angles of reportage

Separately, Pang argued that “it was very common” for media outlets to have different angles in their reporting, drawing a comparison between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal in the US, as well as Apple Daily versus the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po, both local, state-affiliated newspapers.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a particular angle of reporting, correct?” Pang asked the witness.

“It can be put that way,” Chan responded.

Judge Alex Lee, one of the three handpicked national security judges presiding over the case, asked if Chan would agree that “different newspapers could have different political stances of their own.”

Protesters storm the legislative complex on July 1, 2019. File Photo: May James.
Protesters storm the legislative complex on July 1, 2019. File Photo: May James.

Chan said they could, but added that, while a newspaper could debate the superiority of any political system in its editorials and commentaries, its reportage must be rooted in facts.

“Whatever angle of reporting the newspaper adheres to, the newspaper should adhere to truth, justice, objectivity, and independence, is that right?” asked Judge Esther Toh, the lead justice in the trial.

Chan agreed, adding that the maintenance of editorial independence within Apple Daily ultimately rested with each employee’s own awareness.

‘Hearsay’

During the prosecution’s re-examination of Chan on Friday, lead prosecutor Ivan Cheung asked the witness to clarify her understanding of Lai’s comments after he was remanded in custody in December 2020.

The court previously heard that Lai had called on his employees to “hang on” from behind bars via senior executives who paid visit to him, including Chan and Cheung Kim-hung, former publisher of Apple Daily – another defendant turned prosecution witness in the case.

A Correctional Services Department vehicle outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
A Correctional Services Department vehicle outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on December 18, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

But Judge Lee brushed aside the prosecutor’s questioning, saying: “are we going to infer guilt simply because of Mr Lai saying ‘hang on’?”

He added that Lai’s comments, relayed to Chan by Cheung Kim-hung via WhatsApp, would amount to “hearsay evidence.”

Chan is one of six senior Apple Daily employees who pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces in November 2022. They will be sentenced after Lai’s trial, scheduled to last for 80 days.

The trial continues on Monday with editorial writer Yeung Ching-kee, the last defendant turned prosecution witness, expected to take the stand.

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