The sentencing of the high-profile Hong Kong activist Jimmy Lai may offer a foretaste both of his own future and of the media empire he built.
For the 73-year-old tycoon, the 14-month prison sentence handed down on Friday is only the start. He faces six remaining charges, two of which relate to the new national security law, which is deemed draconian by pro-democracy activists but which Beijing argues is necessary.
Authorities in Hong Kong claim that Friday’s sentencing showed the court has “properly and aptly exercised judicial power independently as guaranteed under the basic law”. They also accuse critics of disrespecting the rule of law.
But critics insist the sentencing of Jimmy Lai – along with other high-profile activists including 73-year-old Margaret Ng and 82-year-old Martin Lee – shows the authorities’ defiance amid western criticism and sanctions.
It also sends a chilling message to Lai’s media conglomerate and challenges wider press freedom in Hong Kong, they argue. On the same day as Lai’s sentencing, a commentary in the Hong Kong-based pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao called for a ban on Lai’s tabloid Apple Daily in order to close “national security loopholes”.
The same commentator also accused some media of using their status as the “so-called fourth estate” to “engage in collusion with foreign forces, incite violence and produce fabrication, as well as challenge national security”.
“Among them,” the author claimed, “Apple Daily plays the worst and the most rampant role.”
The article also referenced an Apple Daily article published on Thursday, accusing it of spreading propaganda. “This is not reporting, but rather political propaganda and Hong Kong independence propaganda, which is suspected of violating the national security law,” it read.
Meanwhile, John Lee, Hong Kong’s security chief, this week said some forces were using the media to spread pro-independence and hateful messages.
“Some media intentionally portray criminals as heroes. This is very bad,” he said. “When we see fallacious reasoning, we should straightforwardly tell them that this is not right, through whatever means. We also need to speak loudly, our voice must overwhelm the other side.”
Analysts worry that authorities will continue their crackdown on media freedom in Hong Kong. “It’s not going to end with sending Jimmy Lai to prison,” said Lokman Tsui, an academic at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has written extensively on the issue in the city.
“Over the last few months we have seen how the authorities try to pressure the territory’s public service broadcaster RTHK,” Tsui said. “There is pressure being put on Apple Daily as a business and RTHK as an organisation – from both internally and externally. So this is devastating for press freedom in Hong Kong.”
He added: “Hong Kong used to be a window to mainland China for the world. At a time when reporting in mainland China is becoming increasingly difficult, this crackdown on press freedom is not just bad for Hong Kong, but also for the world.”