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The trial of Jimmy Lai is symbolic of a far wider struggle for press freedom

This blog was authored by Fiona O’Brien, UK Director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Jimmy Lai – founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, RSF laureate, entrepreneur, husband and father – is due to go on trial today, Monday 18 December 2023, on charges under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (NSL). It’s been a long wait, mostly spent in jail where Lai has been held on other trumped-up charges since December 2020. And it’s a trial that really matters – not just for Lai, not just for Hong Kong, but for press freedom everywhere.

Lai is not just a newspaperman. He is a symbol of what it means to hold power to account, and of the struggle for democratic values. For more than twenty-five years, he has worked to uphold the values of media pluralism and press freedom, principles he believes in so deeply that when the crackdown on pro-democracy activists and journalists began in Hong Kong, instead of leaving and protecting himself he chose to stay.

His courage has already come at a great personal cost. In past decades, Lai and his media group were repeatedly the victims of acts of violence and harassment, including an arson attack on his home. He has already been sentenced to twenty months in prison for attending ‘unauthorised’ pro-democracy protests, and to five years and nine months for baseless counts of fraud, aimed at discrediting him. Earlier this month, Lai turned seventy-six – the third birthday he has spent in jail. If convicted to a life sentence under the NSL, he is likely to die behind bars.

At RSF, we campaign for Jimmy Lai because we recognise that his case is emblematic of a far wider struggle in Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom in the region, now a territory where independent journalists are too fearful to work freely. In the 21 years that RSF has been producing the World Press Freedom Index, we have never seen such a sharp and rapid deterioration in the press freedom record of any country as we have noted in Hong Kong. In just one generation, the territory has plummeted down the Index from a ranking of 18th to 140th.

Since introducing the NSL in 2020, China has used it and other laws as a pretext to prosecute at least 28 journalists, press freedom defenders and collaborators in Hong Kong, 12 of whom remain in detention, including Lai. As well as using national security pretexts to pursue journalists, the Hong Kong authorities have also interfered with public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong and forced other broadcasters to transmit propaganda programming each week, further distorting the information citizens can access. Journalists in Hong Kong tell us that it is increasingly difficult for them to access sources, and that there is a worrying increase in self-censorship.

And Lai’s case does not only matter for Hong Kong, it matters globally. The silencing of an independent media outlet like Apple Daily, and the targeting of a publisher like Jimmy Lai, anywhere, has implications for press freedom everywhere.

Editors and publishers around the world understand that clearly which is why, in May, more than 100 of them came together to call for Lai’s immediate release. In a letter coordinated by RSF, media leaders condemned all of the charges brought against Lai and other journalists in Hong Kong. “In targeting this press freedom emblem, the Chinese regime has taken its attempts to control information beyond its borders, and made it a concern for the entire world,” the editors said. “When press freedom is threatened anywhere, it is threatened everywhere.”

The world’s media will be watching again as the NSL trial of Jimmy Lai, a British citizen and symbol of the fight for freedom, finally gets underway. It is a moment of reckoning for Hong Kong – and also a moment of reckoning for governments worldwide who claim to value press freedom. Lai’s voice, and the principles he represents, must not be allowed to be silenced.

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