HK paper beats graft buster in raid case

HONG KONG, Reuters

A Hong Kong newspaper won a victory over the city’s graft buster on Tuesday when a court ruled that the agency need not have raided seven dailies last month in a move that has been chided as eroding press freedom.

The court revoked the search warrants empowering the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) to conduct the raid at Sing Tao Ltd and ordered that the materials confiscated during the operation be returned to the newspaper publisher.

The judgment could prompt the other six newspapers to follow Sing Tao to apply to the court to have the search warrants revoked and the confiscated items returned.

“I have no doubt in my mind that on this occasion the ICAC was wrong in fact and in law in seeking the issue of search warrants when … it could equally have achieved its legitimate aim by less intrusive measures,” High Court judge Michael Hartmann said in a written verdict.

“The search warrants must therefore be set aside,” he said.

Officers from the government’s ICAC looked into confidential computer files and confiscated reporters’ notebooks, after the seven dailies published the identity of a protected witness in a corruption case.

The ICAC wanted to obtain evidence of the newspapers’ source for the identity of the witness.

The ICAC had to show a risk that relevant materials held by journalists involved would have been destroyed, the judge said.

“Indeed, it had to demonstrate this real risk in respect of all seven newspapers and each and every journalist made the subject of search warrants,” Hartmann said.

“I fail utterly to see how that was demonstrated or could have been demonstrated,” he said.

The raids have prompted international concern over press freedom in the territory and many rights groups and lawyers fear the ICAC’s action could deter people from speaking to the media in future.

“An application for a search warrant constitutes a serious intrusion upon the freedom of the press,” the judge said. “A free press is a constitutional guarantee in Hong Kong.”

“A free press must be an efficient press, not moribund or compliant … it must be able, when necessary, to obtain information which would otherwise not be revealed to the light of day and to protect the identity of those willing to pass on such information.”

Newspapers, journalists and academics lauded the verdict.

“We are very happy. This justifies our view that the ICAC move damaged freedom of the press,” said Cheung Ping-ling of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

“The ruling tries to strike a balance between the administration of justice and press freedom,” Law lecturer Eric Cheung said.

Alex Lee, a spokesman for the government’s Justice Department which advises the ICAC on legal matters, told reporters the commission might appeal.