A Hong Kong court on Tuesday found Hong Kong publisher Jimmy Lai guilty of two counts of fraud related to a lease.
The court found that Lai and two former executives at his company, Next Digital, had sublet part of the office space in the building that housed his media outlet Apple Daily, to another company run by Lai.
District court judge Stanley Chan Kwong-chi said the firm’s business did not conform with the lease agreement and that Lai had hidden the fact the company was using space in the building, The Associated Press reported.
The judge said he did not believe that Lai had forgotten that the business was using the office space.
Lai’s former colleague, Wong Wai-keung, was also convicted of fraud.
A second executive, Royston Chow, had made a deal to help with the prosecution in exchange for exemption from criminal liability.
The verdict means that Lai will “be a convicted prisoner going into his national security law trial,” said Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who leads the international legal team for Lai.
Lai, the founder of Hong Kong’s iconic pro-democracy paper, Apple Daily, is due to stand trial December 1 under the 2020 National Security law, on charges that he colluded with foreign powers.
In an earlier separate case, a court convicted Lai of unlawful assembly and sentenced him to 13 months in prison for his brief appearance at a banned vigil to mark the Tiananmen Square anniversary.
Speaking with VOA before Tuesday’s verdict, human rights lawyer Gallagher described the piling up of cases against Lai as “law fare.”
“We have seen this in many other cases in regards to journalists being targeted by authorities around the world,” Gallagher said. “Instead of just using libel laws or counter terrorism laws, which (authorities) have used for many years to try and silence journalists, they are now using a range of other laws, too, like fraud.”
As well as Lai’s case, Gallagher cited the range of lawsuits that the Philippines has leveled at another of her clients, the 2021 Nobel peace laureate Maria Ressa.
“It’s very important that people realize that misuse of regulatory, tax and fraud laws is an increasing way in which authorities are trying to crack down on journalists,” Gallagher said.
Lai’s son Sebastian has said Hong Kong is using his father’s case to send a message to other independent voices.
“My dad’s only ‘crime’ is to campaign for democracy in the face of tyranny, but for that he has already spent over two years in prison, and faces the rest of his life behind bars,” Sebastian Lai said in a statement issued by Reporters Without Borders Monday.
A spokesperson for the public relations wing of Hong Kong's police force told VOA via email that because legal proceedings are ongoing, they are unable to comment.
The office of the Chief Executive John Lee early Tuesday did not respond to VOA's request for comment.
Hong Kong officials have previously dismissed claims that the city’s laws are used to target critics. Senior officials have said that freedom of the press is not a “shield” for illegal activities.
Media analysts believe the case against Lai is emblematic.
“Jimmy Lai is a tireless advocate for press freedom and democracy and his imprisonment is a symbol,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The cases against him is a way of “imprisoning one of the leading voices of democracy in Hong Kong.”
By putting Lai on trial, authorities are sending a message that “no independent journalism is allowed,” Martinez de la Serna told VOA, ahead of Tuesday’s verdict.
Hong Kong passed its national security law in 2020 as a way to bring stability after pro-democracy protests and unrest. But analysts say it has chilled the space for free speech.
After the arrest of Lai and several executives at the Apple Daily, a handful of other outlets shuttered, including Stand News and Citizen News.
CPJ data on journalist jailings worldwide recorded cases in Hong Kong for the first time in 2021, with eight media workers behind bars there for their work.
Human rights lawyer Gallagher said Lai’s case is “emblematic of a decline of press freedoms, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
By convicting Lai in these cases, “the message to other journalists and pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong is very clear: keep quiet or you will be next,” she said.
Citing the closure of independent news outlets, Keith Richburg, president of Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club, told VOA, “Press freedom has been eroding in Hong Kong for a while now.”
The city has experienced “a huge rollback” on press freedom rankings, he said, noting a steep drop on the Press Freedom Index. Hong Kong fell from 80 to 148 out of 180 countries, where 1 has the best environment for media.
It is “a precipitous fall, considering Hong Kong used to be one of the most free places for press in Asia,” said Richburg, a veteran journalist and media professor.
Hong Kong is still a major media hub, with large international outlets based there, and it has more press freedom than mainland China.
But Richburg said, “Journalists have to figure out how to navigate what I call this new normal.” Media can still operate, but “you have to be a lot more careful,” he said.
“A lot of sources don’t want to talk to media, particularly foreign media now, and journalists never know when they are going to be accused of inadvertently going over these kind of vague red lines,” he said.
Editor's note: The sixteenth paragraph of this article has been updated to include a response from Hong Kong's police force, sent after publication.
Some information for this article came from The Associated Press.