Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is unlikely to win any defamation lawsuit if he decides to take the Hong Kong Economic Journal to court over a recent commentary that linked him to triads, legal experts say.
Leung has sent a lawyer's letter to the Chinese-language newspaper regarding the commentary by influential political columnist Joseph Lian Yi-zheng, published on January 29. In the article, Lian mentioned Leung's possible links to triad society.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association has demanded Leung withdraw the letter. Eric Cheung Tat-ming, assistant professor of the University of Hong Kong's faculty of law, said: "The legal arguments would be weak if Leung sued the paper for defamation over the commentary, which was based on Lew Mon-hung's remarks. If Leung thinks Lew said something untrue, he could sue Lew instead."
Lian mentioned comments Lew made last month to Hong Kong-based magazine iSun Affairs, in which Lew accused the chief executive of lying about illegal structures at his home. Lew said he himself had engaged in certain activities on Leung's behalf that bolstered his support.
Lian said that if what Lew last claimed was true, it could be deduced that triads elements were involved.
Cheung said deductions could be considered fair comment, a viable defence against defamation. "Lian wrote fairly in the commentary, saying people could have doubts over what Lew alleged, until more facts came to light."
Professor Johannes Chan Man-mun, dean of the HKU law faculty, said Leung should take back the lawyer's letter, arguing it "set a very bad precedent".
On a Commercial Radio programme, he cited a British case in which the judge ruled that a county council, in itself, could not sue for defamation.
To Yiu-ming, a journalism professor at Baptist University, said Leung's legal threat was intimidating. "Leung has every opportunity to clarify any public misunderstandings. Now he will only face a backlash from the public and the media."
Lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun, also a law professor at City University, said the chief executive wanted to show a clear stance in the face of the accusations, while the lawyer's letter could be "a political decision" to soothe his supporters.
In 2001, then chief secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen sent a letter through a lawyer - at his own expense - demanding an apology from Eastweek over an article. The magazine printed a full-page apology and paid Tsang HK$120,000 in compensation.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association regretted Leung's threat, saying he should exercise such rights "with extreme caution". "Although Mr Leung sent out the letter in his own capacity, it is impossible to distinguish between his public duty and his private persona," it said.