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Hong Kong’s voice for democracy is silenced

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Apple Daily, the feisty Hong Kong newspaper, has shut down, forced out of business by the Chinese government.

The paper’s closure was only a matter of time: Jimmy Lai, its founder, anticipated his own arrest over a year ago in a New York Times opinion article in which he bemoaned the steadily shrinking space for freedom of thought and expression in the Special Administrative Region (Hong Kong’s legal designation). In the piece, he warned of the increasingly repressive tendencies of the Beijing government and its surrogates in the city.

The arrest of Lai, other senior journalists and editors, and the shuttering of the daily, signals not just the end of an era in Hong Kong, but shows to all the world the Chinese leadership’s instincts and ambitions: It will silence its critics by whatever means necessary.

Apple Daily was established in 1995 by Lai, a Hong Kong entrepreneur, who made his money in the fashion industry. When his commitment to the media organization threatened his clothing company, he sold out and devoted himself full time to journalism and political activism.

The paper was a thriving tabloid that mixed gossip with political news and analysis, and was deeply skeptical — if not hostile — toward the Chinese Communist Party. The paper survived advertising boycotts, physical attacks on its staff and the unremitting hostility of the local and Beijing governments.

Passage of Hong Kong’s National Security Law last year proved fatal, however. An unflinching supporter of pro-democracy protests, the paper was an inviting target for the government. As he predicted, Lai was arrested last year — one of the first people to be held under the new law — and charged with violating the national security law, an offense that carries a maximum punishment of life in prison. While he was detained, he was sentenced to 20 months in prison for involvement in the protests.

The crackdown against Apple Daily ramped up two weeks ago, when the police raided its headquarters to seize “evidence for a case of suspected contravention of the National Security Law.” They also arrested its editor in chief and the chief executive of the media group of which Apple Daily is a part.

The two were charged with breaking the law by publishing articles that were interpreted as calling for sanctions on Hong Kong or China by foreign governments and institutions, which the police argued constituted “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Last week, another Apple Daily journalist was arrested on the same charge.

Decimating the paper’s leadership and thinning and threatening the ranks of its staff was not enough, however. The Hong Kong authorities also froze the paper’s bank accounts and ordered banks to stop doing any business for or with the company. More arrests have been threatened.

This is not just a war against Apple Daily. All media are under attack. Radio Television Hong Kong, the city’s public broadcaster, has been forced to change its leadership to ensure that its news aligns with the government line. One of its journalists was arrested after investigating police misconduct. Foreign media organizations have had difficulty getting visas for their correspondents. The government has also said that it would tighten rules about accrediting journalists and restrict access to “trusted media.”

Using the National Security Law, the Chinese authorities are now silencing independent media in Hong Kong and ending freedom of speech and expression, even though they were guaranteed by the Basic Law and the 1985 agreement struck by China and the United Kingdom that set the terms for Hong Kong’s reversion to the mainland.

Hong Kong officials argue that journalism is not the problem. Carrie Lam, head of the Hong Kong government, insisted that the law would not affect “normal journalism.”

John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, distinguished Apple Daily from “ordinary journalists,” and a senior police superintendent explained that the crackdown wasn’t “targeting the media but an organization that violated the national security law.”

There are two problems with that logic. First, the language of the National Security Law is vague, which forces journalists to guess where the lines are as they do their job. Second, as it interprets the law, the Hong Kong government has apparently decided that any criticism is beyond the pale. For the Chinese state, the media is not to scrutinize or criticize the government, but should instead parrot its positions. “Independent” media is an oxymoron.

The sweep of the National Security Law encompasses far more than the media. Businesses that once flocked to Hong Kong because of its energy and proximity to China are now rethinking those choices for precisely the same reasons. It is difficult to do business when there is a fear of violating an arbitrary and capricious law.

Living and working in silence is not an option. Moreover, the language of the National Security Law extends its reach beyond Hong Kong’s borders. In theory, this article might even violate its intent.

When it closed, Apple Daily was the largest independent media outlet in Hong Kong, with 600,000 subscribers in a city of 7.4 million people. Its influence was much greater than those numbers suggest, however. It provided accurate information, independent views and support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Those are also the reasons the government of Hong Kong felt compelled to shut it down.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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