Apple Daily was a pro-democracy newspaper
Guest blog post by Gene Policinski
The newspaper Apple Daily, a fixture and voice for democracy in Hong Kong for decades, closes this Saturday, days after China arrested its owner and its top editors and froze its financial assets.
The fate of one newspaper, halfway around the world, may not have grabbed your attention before. But the shutdown is worthy of some thought by us all, as a significant marker in the effort by Beijing to extinguish this beacon of democracy in the world’s most populous nation.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai was jailed some months ago on phony charges regarding a real estate lease, and Lai and op editors and news executives of Apple Daily now face vague charges related to “national security” – with life sentences a possibility.
The final move to silence Lai and his newspaper, frequent critics of the anti-democratic policies of the mainland government, was to freeze more than $2 million in assets of companies connected to the Hong Kong newspaper – rendering it unable to pay staff or bills.
Jimmy Lai, Source: Getty Images
In 1997, when Great Britain ended its colonial control of the city, Chinese leaders promised Hong Kong residents that they would continue to have what we in the United States would call First Amendment freedoms for at least 50 years.
No more. Hundreds of arrests, police brutality toward pro-freedom protesters and severe financial moves like those against Apple Daily are proof that China no longer honors that promise – or respects democracy.
Lai is a self-made millionaire and publisher who choose to remain in Hong Kong to be a vocal critic of China’s repressive moves. As a close associate told me some weeks ago, “he has homes around the world. He chose to stay and to speak out. He knew the risks.”
Lai has been honored for his courage and voice by First Amendment groups like the Freedom Forum, who awarded him its 2021 Free Expression Award last April – just one day before he was found guilty of supporting “illegal assemblies.” And yesterday in Paris, the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders staged a mock funeral, complete with casket, outside the Chinese embassy to denounce the forced closing of Apple Daily.
While the jailings and closings are worthy of concern on their own, we also need to recognize that despotic regimes world-wide are watching the international response to China’s action. Protest may not free Jimmy Lai and his colleagues or bring back Apple Daily. But silence in the face of repression will speak loudly to those who aim to quiet dissent anywhere in the world – including the U.S.
In our own nation, a free press needs support for multiple reasons – financial stress as advertising mainly has moved from broadcast and print outlets to social media and other online operations; a loss of confidence from sizeable portions of the public; and aggressive moves by politicians who would like nothing more than eliminate the “watchdog on government” that might hold them accountable to voters.
A public stand for Apply Daily and Jimmy Lai could help in Hong Kong – and will be a vocal show of support for basic freedoms of conscience and free speech worldwide. Anyone who advocates for First Amendment freedoms as a cornerstone of democracy, here and elsewhere, should make that support known however they can.
Memo to China: Unfreeze Apple Daily’s assets and stop arresting and harassing its staff. Abide by your promises of freedom for the citizens of Hong Kong. Release Jimmy Lai.
Gene Policinski is a member of the board of trustees and board secretary of the First Amendment Museum and frequently writes on issues involving the First Amendment.