Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily and Next Digital, leaves Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal on February 1, 2021. Lai’s publications have been forced out of business and he could be jailed for life. (Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

‘Taken into a cage’: Hong Kong’s sad media milestone

The year 2021 marks a sad milestone in Hong Kong. For the first time journalists in the former British colony appear on CPJ’s annual survey of journalists unjustly imprisoned for their work. Eight. Zero to eight in one year.

I first visited Hong Kong nearly 50 years ago as a student and returned to live there a few years later for research on a Ph.D. thesis. I subsequently paid many visits to Hong Kong as a working journalist, both before and after reversion to Chinese rule in 1997, and most recently as a press freedom advocate with CPJ.

To say that Hong Kong has changed over these years is a vast understatement.

The squeeze on press freedom didn’t start in 2021. While Hong Kongers have never participated in a full electoral democracy, they had for decades enjoyed uninhibited freedom of the press and the rule of law – factors that contributed to Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a thriving business and finance center. The colonial era anti-communist press included famed titles like the English-language South China Morning Post and the Chinese Ming Pao, while the left included the pro-communist flag wavers Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po. Many international news organizations established regional headquarters in the city because of the freedom and convenience. It was hard not to like Hong Kong for its energy, the food, the setting and its entrepreneurial, ambitious people.

The 1984 British-Chinese agreement that led to the handover to China 13 years later put Hong Kong on notice that the communists were coming, like it or not, and set in motion significant changes, as CPJ documented in a report. The anti-communist press gradually became less strident, even before the handover. Afterwards, the trend continued, with occasional physical attacks on journalists notably concentrated on critics of the Chinese or Hong Kong governments. Police frequently attacked journalists during widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.

Of course, there was a major exception to this softening of China coverage: Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily and Next Digital. Lai is this year’s winner of CPJ’s Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for “extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.” And he now sits in jail for his stubborn refusal to join most of the rest of the media by curbing his openly pro-democracy and anti-communist editorial line in Apple Daily. He could remain there for the rest of his life. Six of his senior colleagues, as well as a commentator at the independent internet radio channel D100, are also in jail. The paper and Next Digital were forced out of business.

Interactive map and more regional analysis of CPJ’s 2021 data

The Chinese government’s feud with Lai started in the 1990s, when, after writing a column suggesting that China’s tough Premier Li Peng “drop dead,” Lai was forced to sell his mainland Chinese clothing business that was the source of his initial wealth. An advertising squeeze on the paper, clearly orchestrated by China, started in the late 1990s and accelerated over the years. Apple Daily office, Lai’s home, and staff reporters suffered various attacks over the years.

“The very rights of journalists are being taken away,” Lai told CPJ in a 2019 interview. “We were birds in the forest and now we are being taken into a cage.” A literal cage, now.

Lai and the others have been charged under the draconian National Security Law that China imposed on July 1, 2020 after historic pro-democracy protests swept the city. While Lai and his colleagues are the most prominent media targets, the law has spread a chill through the Hong Kong community of journalists, as CPJ has documented.

The independent-minded Hong Kong Journalists Association has come under a series of attacks from the government and the pro-communist press, including a suggestion by authorities that HKJA may have breached the national security law. On November 5, the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club released a survey of its members showing that 83.8% of its members saw deterioration of the working environment for journalists, and that 71% were slightly or very concerned about possible arrest for their work. Predictably, and sadly typical, the Chinese foreign ministry office in Hong Kong blasted the FCC, saying in a threatening statement: “Its smearing of Hong Kong’s press freedom and playing-up of the chilling effect are interference in Hong Kong affairs.” 

This isn’t to say that some excellent journalism doesn’t still take place in Hong Kong by a number of news outlets and international bureaus that remain in the city. But the red lines over what’s permissible and what’s not have never been more blurry. 

As CPJ’s principal spokesperson on Hong Kong and China, I’ve been blunt and uninhibited criticizing both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments. Given China’s record of taking foreigners hostage, and Hong Kong’s still evolving application of the National Security Law, will I ever feel comfortable or safe returning to the place that I’ve grown to love over the years?  I’m not sure.