Taipei, December 29, 2021 – Hong Kong authorities must immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against Jimmy Lai, founder of the Next Digital Limited media company and the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, as well as six former Next Digital and Apple Daily staff, and release them immediately, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed new charges of conspiracy to “print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display or reproduce seditious publication” against Lai, former Next Digital Limited chief executive officer Cheung Kim Hung, former Apple Daily associate publisher Chan Pui-man, former executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung, former editor-in-chief Ryan Law Wai-kwong, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s English edition Fung Wai-kong, and former editorial writer Yeung Ching-kee, according to news reports. The sedition charge is a criminal offense under the territory’s British colonial-era sedition law.
On Wednesday, police raided the nonprofit newsroom Stand News and arrested six people affiliated with the outlet on suspicion of sedition, leading the site to announce that it would cease operations immediately, according to news reports. Stand News deputy assignment editor Ronson Chan has since been released, news reports said. According to news reports, police included a seventh person, Chan Pui-man, who is imprisoned in the Apple Daily case, in the Stand News case because of articles she published in Stand News.
“The Hong Kong authorities all-out assault on independent media, including new charges against former Apple Daily executives and editors and the arrests at and closure of Stand News, mark a sad day for the people of Hong Kong,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Hong Kong’s once-vibrant media scene is being crushed as China exerts greater control over the former colony, and the people of Hong Kong are deprived essential critical voices.”
Lai, CPJ’s 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Awardee, is serving a 20-month prison term for charges related to his alleged involvement in illegal demonstrations, and is awaiting trial on national security and fraud charges with the other six former executives and journalists, according to CPJ research. If convicted on the national security charges, they could face life in prison.
If convicted of the new sedition charge, they could face a fine of up to $5,000 Hong Kong dollars (US$644) and up to two years in jail for a first offense, and up to three years in jail for subsequent offenses, according to Hong Kong’s Crimes Ordinance.
The Department of Justice did not respond to CPJ’s emailed request for comment.
CPJ’s 2021 prison census found that China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row. This year, Hong Kong journalists appear in CPJ’s annual prison census for the first time, according to CPJ research.