Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung has asked the High Court to jail the editors of Apple Daily and its sister publication, Sharp Daily, for contempt of court over reports they published about two alleged murderers.
In two writs filed yesterday, Yuen said Apple Daily editor Cheung Kim-hung and Sharp Daily editor Li Pang-kay should be imprisoned or fined for "publishing, or causing or permitting to be published" the articles when criminal proceedings were in progress.
The Department of Justice said it took legal action to ensure that the defendants would have a fair trial.
The court documents have not identified the articles published apart from saying they ran on March 20 and related to a "double homicide" case.
Both papers had an exclusive interview with Henry Chau Hoi-leung, 29, who in March was accused with his friend, Tse Chun-Kei, 35, of murdering and dismembering his parents at Tse's Tai Kok Tsui apartment.
Chau was interviewed in Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre, where he had been remanded, and spoke freely and frankly about the case. Apple Daily also published a video on its website, the writs said.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: "The government fully respects the freedom of the press. However, the Secretary for Justice at the same time has a duty to protect public interest, so as to ensure that everyone facing criminal prosecution will have a fair trial.
"The [Secretary] took the view that it is necessary to commence contempt of court proceedings … to protect the solemnity of the criminal justice system."
In 1998, Wong Yeung-ng, the former chief editor of Oriental Daily was jailed for four months for contempt of court for publishing abusive articles and harassing a judge.
Legal expert Eric Cheung Tat-ming said whether the two newspapers would be guilty of contempt depended on whether the reports might affect the due administration of justice. "In exercising freedom of the press, the media should be careful that their acts would not affect the administration of justice and a person's right to a fair trial ," he said.
He added that it would be difficult for the alleged murderers to apply for a permanent stay of proceedings due to adverse publicity as such alleged prejudice could normally be dealt with by a judge's direction to the jury.