HONG KONG: Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is set to plead not guilty and stand trial under the city's severe national security law, Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) reported. Six other defendants, who were former staff members of Apple Daily, are set to plead guilty and face sentencing, the report said.
Lai, 74 faces four charges, including two counts of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries and one count of conspiracy to print and/or reproduce seditious publications.
Meanwhile, six other defendants are also accused of conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign forces and conspiracy to print seditious publications. According to HKFP, the maximum sentence for national security charges is life imprisonment whereas the first sedition offence carries two years in prison.
Once a bastion of press freedom, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China has seen an unprecedented setback since 2020 when Beijing adopted a National Security Law aimed at silencing independent voices, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Hong Kong, a former British colony, had a vibrant media environment with hundreds of publications and over 15 TV stations. Since the 1997 handover to China, most media have fallen under the control of the government or pro-China groups.
In 2021, two major independent news outlets, Apple Daily and Stand News, were forcibly shut down while numerous smaller-scale media outlets ceased operations, citing legal risks.
The Paris-based media watchdog says that the Hong Kong government takes orders directly from Beijing and openly supports its attempts to impose censorship and spread propaganda. Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), previously renowned for its fearless investigations, has been placed under a pro-government management which does not hesitate to censor the programmes it dislikes. Hong Kong's Basic Law enshrines "freedom of speech, of the press and of publication".
The National Security Law, however, serves as a pretext to gag independent voices in the name of the fight against "terrorism", "secession", "subversion", and "collusion with foreign forces". Due to its ambiguous phrasing, the law looks like it could apply to any journalist covering Hong Kong, regardless of their location.
Most large-scale media outlets are owned by pro-Beijing factions and the remaining independent media owners are confronted with political pressure.
In 2021, the government froze the assets of Apple Daily and Stand News, forcing them to cease operations and causing the unemployment of 860 of their staff. Hong Kong used to be a very safe place for journalists until 2014, when those who covered the Umbrella Movement were targeted by the police and pro-Beijing factions.
During the 2019 protests, hundreds of journalists were victims of police violence and were also detained and indicted. A new wave of arrests started in 2021, when a dozen journalists were detained for national security crimes.