AJF, RSF and other media freedom watchdogs condemn China’s ‘suffocation’ of free press

Apple Daily newsroom
The Apple Daily newsroom in Hong Kong last night ... empty as media freedom watchdogs denounce China's crackdown. Image: RSF

Pacific Media Watch newsdesk

Apple Daily has announced its imminent closure in a dark day for Hong Kong’s press freedom and democracy, sparking condemnation by global media freedom watchdogs.

The Australian-based Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, Reporters Without Borders in Paris and the Committee to Protect Journalists were among the watchdogs that issued statements criticised the crackdown by authorities that has forced Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy daily to close.

Founded by Jimmy Lai, who is currently jailed on a series of charges including unlawful assembly, fraud and “colluding with foreign forces”, Apple Daily has been a longstanding and well-read publisher for 26 years.

This closure comes days after more than 100 police raided their offices, arrested five Apple Daily executives and froze their assets on Monday. Another columnist was arrested yesterday afternoon.

These incidents occurred under a new National Security Law, which critics say restricts the territory’s autonomy and undermines the human rights of its citizens.

Peter Greste, spokesperson and director of the AJF said:

“Since the national security law was introduced, we’ve seen: the arrest and ongoing detention of Jimmy Lai as he awaits trial; the freezing of a news publisher’s assets so they can no longer pay their staff; the mass-raid of the publisher’s offices – in numbers fit for terrorists – and the arrest of five executives; and the arrest of a columnist during a company board meeting only days later.

‘This is not normal’
“This is not normal. This is not democracy,” said Dr Greste, who is also the UNESCO chair in journalism at the University of Queensland, Brisbane.

“Press freedom and democracy cannot function when journalism in the public interest is restricted or denied. Apple Daily was a vocal critic of the government, but that should not be a crime.

“They were a legitimate news outlet. If a publisher like Apple Daily cannot exist in Hong Kong anymore, it is hard to see what remains of their democracy.

“The AJF implores Hong Kong to re-commit to the democratic principle of press freedom, release the Apple Daily journalists and employees now in custody, and unfreeze the company’s assets so they can continue to report freely.”

In Paris, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deplored the “suffocation” of independent media following the announcement by the parent Next Digital media group’s board of directors yesterday that Apple Daily would cease all its operations from Sunday, June 27, due to the government’s decision to freeze its financial assets, leaving the media outlet unable to pay their employees and suppliers.

On Tuesday, June 22, RSF submitted an urgent appeal to the United Nations, asking the organisation to “take all necessary measures” to safeguard press freedom in Hong Kong.

“The tearing down of Apple Daily, one of the last major Chinese-language media critical of the Beijing regime, after years of harassment, is sending a chilling message to Hong Kong journalists,” said Cédric Alviani, RSF East Asia bureau head.

Erasing press freedom
“If the international community does not respond with the utmost determination, President Xi Jinping will know that he can erase press freedom in Hong Kong with complete impunity, as he has already done in the rest of China.”

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists also denounced the Chinese government’s “outrageous efforts to stomp out critical voices in Hong Kong”.

Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, said: “Even under colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong enjoyed robust freedom of expression. China has managed to snuff that out, in stark violation of firm commitments it made to the people of Hong Kong during the handover from British rule in 1997.”

Apple Daily, launched in 1995, was one of the last major Chinese-language media to still dare publish information contradicting the Beijing regime’s propaganda and editorials critical of its authoritarian policies, and for many years it was the target of harassment by government and pro-Beijing camps.

On the 17 June 2021, approximately 500 police officers raided its headquarters and five executive staff members were arrested on suspicion of “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces”, a crime that bears a life sentence under the National Security Law imposed last year by the Chinese regime.

Apple Daily founder and 2020 RSF Press Freedom Awards laureate, Jimmy Lai, detained since December 2020, was recently sentenced to a total of 20 months in prison for taking part in three “unauthorised” pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 and also faces six other procedures, including two charges for which he risks life imprisonment.

On the May 28, RSF submitted another urgent appeal asking the UN to “take all measures necessary’ to obtain his immediate release.

Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom, has fallen from 18th place in 2002 to 80th place in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index.

The People’s Republic of China, for its part, has stagnated at 177th out of 180.

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