Hong Kong: the national security trial of Jimmy Lai, a symbol of press freedom, will begin in six months
On 25 September 2023, six months from now, British national Jimmy Lai, a symbol of press freedom in Hong Kong, will be tried under national security charges for which he faces a life sentence. Lai, Apple Daily founder and RSF Press Freedom Prize laureate, has over the past three decades been an outspoken advocate for the right to information in the territory.
Nothing predestined the Giordano clothing brand's founder to become a symbol of Hong Kong's fight for press freedom. He arrived in the former British colony at the age of 12, as a stowaway, fleeing his hometown of Canton, and the Maoist China where one of history's deadliest famines was raging. There, once the young underpaid refugee, who learned English in garment workshops, founded in 1981 his first company, a clothing brand, which quickly expanded internationally and later made his fortune. Jimmy Lai, a naturalised British citizen, could have been content to stay in business. But the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989 changed his destiny and determined his commitment to democracy and press freedom. Barely a year later, in 1990, he launched the Chinese-language weekly magazine Next Magazine, and in 1995 the newspaper Apple Daily.
The newspaper, one of the last mainstream titles openly critical of the Beijing regime, became a leading outlet in Hong Kong’s vigorous media landscape. Committed to reporting on the pro-democracy movement, Apple Daily was consistently subjected to pressure from the authorities. In June 2021, the police stormed the media group’s headquarters while the government announced the freezing of its assets and arrested the newspaper’s main executives at their homes - six of whom are still detained. On 24 June 2021, after 26 years of operating in Hong Kong, Apple Daily published its final edition. By the end of the day, it reached a record circulation of one million copies, ten times what it would normally sell in a day.
“It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice”, wrote Jimmy Lai, in a letter from his jail cell in April 2021. Anticipating further government attacks on the pro-democracy newspaper he founded, Apple Daily, after decades of harassment, Lai said to his staff “The era is falling apart before us and it is time for us to stand tall and keep our heads high”.
Acts of violence and judicial harassment
For the past 30 years, Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai has been a recurring target for the authorities. On 10 December 2022, a date which ironically marks the Human Rights Day, Jimmy Lai was sentenced to five years and nine months for two counts of trumped-up fraud charges, which were added to the 20 months in prison he received for “unauthorised'' pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. In past decades, Lai and his media group were repeatedly the victims of acts of violence and harassment, including several arson attacks.
Jimmy Lai, who spent his 74th and 75th birthday in prison, has now been detained for more than two years and is facing a life sentence for “collusion with foreign forces”, a charge under the national security law for which he is set to be tried without a jury on 25 September 2023. Unauthorised demonstrations, fraud, and finally national security crimes — the diversity of the charges brought against him, and the staggering severity of the sentences imposed show how desperate the Chinese regime is to silence this symbolic figure of press freedom in Hong Kong.
Jimmy Lai: three decades of fight for Hong Kong’s press freedom
A system of censorship and information control
Over the past two years, the Hong Kong government has been leading an unprecedented campaign against press freedom which included the forced shutdown of independent media and the prosecution of at least 28 journalists and press freedom defenders, 13 of whom are currently detained.
In a report titled The Great Leap Backwards of Journalism in China, RSF revealed last year the system of censorship and information control established by the Chinese regime and the global threat it poses to press freedom and democracy.
Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom, has plummeted from 80th place in 2021 to 148th place in the 2022 RSF World Press Freedom Index, marking the index’s sharpest drop of the year. China itself ranks 175th of the 180 countries and territories evaluated.