Watchdog: Apple Daily trial typifies declining press freedom in Hong Kong

washington — In the four years since Hong Kong enacted its national security law, the country’s press freedom record is in free fall, according to media advocates. 

More than 900 journalists have lost their jobs, several media outlets have closed or moved overseas, and some journalists, including pro-democracy Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, are in prison. 

“The Chinese and Hong Kong government’s forced closure of Apple Daily and prosecutions of its owner and editors are very chilling, and they exemplify the city’s sharp decline in press and other freedoms,” said Maya Wang, the interim China director of Human Rights Watch, also known as HRW. 

Once a mainstay of press freedom, Hong Kong’s media community has faced numerous setbacks since passage of the 2020 Beijing-backed legislation that cracks down on independent media. The most egregious example is the trial against Lai, which has lasted more than 90 days with the court currently adjourned until July 24. 

Lai, who denies charges against him filed under the national security law, has been in custody since December 2020. He and six former staff at Apple Daily — the media outlet he founded — were first arrested in the August of that year. 

Apple Daily was shuttered that same year, after authorities froze its assets. 

Prosecutors have used more than 150 videos, op-eds and other articles from Apple Daily in their case against Lai. The publisher faces life in prison if convicted. 

But rights organizations and international lawyers say the claims against the elderly publisher and his media outlet are “baseless” and that charges should be dropped. 

Hong Kong’s security bureau did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment. Authorities have previously disputed accusations that the trial of Lai is unfair. 

The trial of the other former Apple Daily executives has been postponed for more than two years, waiting for Lai’s case to conclude, according to Reporters Without Borders, also known as RSF. 

RSF and other rights organizations including HRW and Freedom House have called for the immediate release of those in custody. 

Calling the prosecutions “baseless,” Wang of HRW told VOA via email that the cases “should also remind the world what Hong Kong has become: a place where people can get life in prison for criticizing the government.” 

Wang added that Lai, who is 76, might be suffering from ill health, which adds to the urgency of his release. 

Aleksandra Bielakowska, RSF’s Pacific Asia Bureau advocacy officer, told VOA it is unclear what will happen in the coming months. But, she said, “I estimate that the sentencing will be prolonged until the start of fall.” 

Bielakowska described Lai’s case as a “sham trial” to prove what Hong Kong can do to silence the press wanting to talk about the issues that are not aligned with China. 

She noted that earlier in the year, the United Nations raised concerns about the treatment of a witness called to give testimony. 

In a letter to Chinese authorities, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture said she was “deeply concerned that evidence that is expected to be presented against Jimmy Lai imminently may have been obtained as a result of torture or other unlawful treatment,” and called for an investigation into the allegations of mistreatment and torture. 

Bielakowska has been observing Lai’s trial. But when she tried to travel to Hong Kong in April for a hearing, her entry was blocked. Bielakowska says she was detained for six hours at the airport, searched, and questioned before being deported. 

Since the national security law’s enactment, several media outlets have closed or moved some parts of their operations outside of Hong Kong, including VOA’s sister network Radio Free Asia and The Wall Street Journal. RSF says that the environment for media has prompted many journalists to leave Hong Kong.  

There is an atmosphere of fear for the journalists working on the ground, said Bielakowska, adding that Hong Kong officials have not given a lot of hope for press freedom, and that independent reporting is already deteriorating significantly in China. 

Alongside the Apple Daily case, the law has been used to arrest hundreds of pro-democracy activists. 

Beijing has dismissed concerns that the security law is affecting press freedom, saying the legislation is needed to maintain stability. 

Yaqiu Wang, research director for China and Hong Kong at Freedom House, said her organization is advocating for the U.S. and other governments to impose sanctions against Hong Kong officials involved in the prosecution of Lai and others charged under the national security law.   

In December, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China in a statement also said the U.S. “should sanction the judges and prosecutors involved in this case.”

Hong Kong ranks 135 out of 180 on the RSF World Press Freedom Index, where 1 shows the best media environment. In 2019, the year before the national security came in, Hong Kong ranked 73. 

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