HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong media baron Jimmy Lai, one of the most prominent critics of China's crackdown on the city's pro-democracy movement, was acquitted of a charge of intimidating a reporter from a tabloid that rivals his Apple Daily.
Magistrate May Chung told a Hong Kong Court on Thursday (Sept 3) that she found insufficient evidence to support allegations that Lai meant to harm the reporter during the 2017 incident. Lai appeared to be acting out of impulse, anger and frustration, Magistrate Chung said, adding that she did not accept that the reporter was frightened by Lai's words.
Lai, 72, left court without saying anything. He faces at least five other criminal investigations related to his participation in the democracy movement, including allegations that he violated a new Beijing-drafted security law.
Lai's Next Digital climbed as much as 8.8 per cent in Hong Kong trading after the verdict was read out.
The fate of Lai and his media empire have emerged as a perceived test of press freedom after China imposed the national security law on Hong Kong on June 30.
The case is one of several fuelling questions about how Hong Kong's legal system, which has underpinned the city's position as Asia's top financial centre, will fare amid China's tightening grip over the former British colony.
Last month, police raided the Apple Daily, the city's largest pro-democracy newspaper. Lai was arrested the same day, along with nine others at the paper on suspicion of breaching the national security law. A spokesman for China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office supported the arrest.
Hong Kong's Department of Justice could not immediately comment on Thursday's ruling.
Next Digital shares soared in the days after Lai's arrest, leaving the stock with a 344 per cent gain for the week ending Aug 14. The rally was largely a result of a campaign by pro-democracy supporters to buy up the company's shares as a way to push back against his arrest.
The gains widened even after Lai warned buyers away from the stock.
"Don't do it, because you're going to lose money," Lai said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
The reporter whom Lai was accused of intimidating in 2017 worked for the Oriental Daily News, a competitor to his flagship Apple Daily tabloid.
A video filmed by an Oriental Daily employee showed Lai's heated exchange with the reporter. Lai is heard saying: "I will definitely mess with you, I'm telling you now".
Lai has also repeatedly been investigated over his political activism. In February, he was held on suspicion of participating in an unlawful assembly last year. Months later, he was summoned to court on allegations that he helped incite a vigil marking the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.
Lai was arrested again on Aug 10 under the new security law, which bars subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers. He was released on bail without an immediate charge.
The police are also investigating his group on suspicion of fraud and breach of land leases. No charges have been filed against him in the security law case.