Hong Kong: RSF observes opening of Jimmy Lai's historic national security trial

A delegation from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) traveled to Hong Kong to monitor the opening of the historic national security trial of Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, a symbol of press freedom who faces the rest of his life behind bars on spurious charges.

On 18 December 2023, an RSF delegation composed of Asia-Pacific Bureau Advocacy Officer Aleksandra Bielakowska and Projects Manager Shataakshi Verma attended the opening of Jimmy Lai's trial in the West Kowloon court, queuing from 5 am to secure places in the courtroom. The founder of independent newspaper Apple Daily has been charged with "colluding with foreign forces" under the draconian National Security Law (NSL), for which he faces the possibility of life imprisonment. 

Diplomats from the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, as well as members of Lai's family, were among the hundred or so people present in the main courtroom. On arrival in court, where a large police presence was deployed, Lai, 76, was dressed in a suit and looked as if he had lost weight. This was the first time he has been seen outside of prison since 2021. His trial, which has been postponed several times by the Hong Kong authorities, is expected to take place over 80 business days, without a jury.

“RSF has long campaigned for the release of Jimmy Lai, whose case has become emblematic not only of the situation in Hong Kong, but for press freedom globally. It was crucial to be present at the opening of this landmark trial to bear witness to these historic proceedings and show the court, and the Hong Kong authorities, that the world is watching and will not turn a blind eye to a miscarriage of justice. We call again for adherence to the rule of law and for the release of Jimmy Lai without further delay.

Rebecca Vincent
RSF’s Director of Campaigns

On the eve of the opening of the trial, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron issued a statement declaring that Jimmy Lai had been targeted “in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association.” He called for the Hong Kong authorities to end their prosecution and release Jimmy Lai – the first time the UK government has publicly called for the release of Lai, a British citizen, following months of advocacy by Lai’s international legal team, RSF, and a number of other NGOs.

A laureate of RSF’s Press Freedom Prize, Jimmy Lai has been detained since December 2020 in a maximum security jail, and has already been sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on other trumped-up charges. For the past 25 years, he has fought to uphold the values of media pluralism and press freedom in Hong Kong.

Shortly before the trial began, on 9 December 2023, the city of Lyon, third-largest city of France, awarded honorary citizenship to Jimmy Lai in recognition of his lifelong fight for press freedom. Earlier this year, prominent publishers and editors around the world, and the wider international public, also joined RSF's global call to #FreeJimmyLai.

Downfall of a bastion of press freedom

In June 2023, an RSF delegation undertook a previous mission to Hong Kong to assess the safety needs of journalists, three years after the entry into force of the NSL adopted by Beijing to silence independent voices in the former British colony. The delegation also attended a hearing of the trial for “seditious publications” of two former editors-in-chief of Stand News, a media outlet the authorities forced to shut down in 2021. Nearly two years after their arrests on 29 December 2021, they still await a verdict in their trial, which was initially expected to last 20 days, but took more than 50 days.

Over the past three years, in line with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crusade against journalism, the Hong Kong government has prosecuted at least 28 media workers and press freedom defenders under the NSL and other laws, 12 of whom remain in detention. The government also forcibly shut down independent daily newspapers Apple Daily and Stand News, while six other media outlets had no other choice but to disband due to pressure.

Hong Kong ranks 140th out of 180 in RSF’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, having plummeted from 18th place in two decades. China itself ranks 179th out of 180 countries and territories evaluated.

172/ 180
Score : 23.36
135/ 180
Score : 43.06
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