Hong Kong: Jimmy Lai’s phones to be searched by authorities

High Court judge Wilson Chan has upheld a warrant to give Hong Kong police permission to search two phones owned by imprisoned media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai, on August 30. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the decision and urges the High Court to uphold press freedom and confidentiality in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrives at the Court of Final Appeal on December 31, 2020, to face the prosecution's appeal against his bail after he was charged under the national security law. Credit: Isaac Lawrence / AFP

In July, Hong Kong authorities applied for a warrant to access Lai’s phones as part of their ongoing investigation into the media tycoon’s alleged national security offences.

Lai’s lawyer, Philip Dykes, argued that the warrant should not be granted as the phones were protected by journalistic privilege and contained confidential conversations between Lai and his lawyers.

However, according to specially appointed Hong Kong High Court Judge Wilson Chan, press freedom should not justify “an absolute ban against the search and seizure” of journalistic materials. Chan, who has presided over several national security cases, argued that the police were entitled to access the phones as a matter of public interest.

Chan ruled that police could legitimately search the contents of the phones, including journalistic material, so long as there was strong reason to believe they contained evidence of a national security offence, with the exemption of legal discussions between Lai and his Lawyers.

In the trial, which is set to begin on December 1, Lai has said he will plead not guilty. Meanwhile, his phones will remain sealed until 11.00 pm on September 6 as his lawyers aim to appeal the Court’s latest decision.

In June 2020, Beijing introduced Hong Kong’s national security law (NSL), nominally designed to target crimes, including sedition, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Since the implementation of the NSL, Hong Kong has seen escalating attacks on press freedoms and civil liberties, with the IFJ documenting a mass exodus of journalists leaving the country.  

On August 10, 2020, authorities raided the offices of Lai’s now-defunct newspaper, Apple Daily, and arrested and charged Lai with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. Several other Apple Daily employees were also arrested. Lai’s two phones were confiscated by authorities following his arrest.

The IFJ said: “The High Court’s decision to allow authorities to access the contents of Jimmy Lai’s phones is another grave blow to press freedom in Hong Kong. The confidentiality of journalistic material and journalists’ sources must be protected. The IFJ strongly condemns the continued persecution of Lai and calls on the Hong Kong authorities to immediately repeal the charges laid against him under the draconian national security law.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on ifj@ifj-asia.org

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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