By Chris Yeung —
The drama surrounding Next Media founder Jimmy Lai never ends.
On Monday, he was arrested at his home for alleged breaches of the national security law imposed by Beijing in July. Shortly after that, he was taken by Police to his office at the premises of the group, where more than 200 police officers conducted sweeping searches. Also arrested were his two sons and six top executives of the group. In the late evening, former Demosisto core member Agnes Chow was arrested for violation of the national security law.
In the early hours of Tuesday, there were long queues of people at newsstands in Mong Kok. They came to show their support by buying early copies of Apple Daily. The rare scene marks the beginning of another day of drama featuring Jimmy Lai and his media business.
In a show of defiance of the local and mainland authorities, more woke up earlier to snap up copies of the newspaper across the city. According to the newspaper, they printed 550,000 copies of Apple Daily, up from its original schedule of 70,000 copies.
Business, meanwhile, was also booming at Cafe Seasons, a local cha chaan teng-style cafeteria that operates on cash terms in Central, reportedly run by Lai’s second son.
There was more drama in the stock market. Shares of holding company Next Digital, which had dropped to a new low of 7.5 Hong Kong cents in trading Monday morning, almost hit HK$2, a 12-year high, amid online calls for people to buy the stock.
Whether Lai will be charged and subsequently convicted is too early to tell. But in their rally behind Lai and the newspapers on Monday, many have already given their verdict. Not all of them may agree with everything he did and his newspaper published, they defend the right and freedom of him and the newspaper to say it.
This is because, rightly or wrongly, the plight of Lai has now been intertwined with the fate of a sizable part of the Hong Kong populace under Chinese rule. The enormity of power of the Hong Kong government and the state behind it invoked to put pressure on Lai and the newspaper since the handover has provoked a feeling of empathy among the populace.
Even for those who hate the style and approach of Apple Daily, they see the all-out efforts by the authorities to get rid of it will cause more harm to the city’s freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
News media around the world are facing a hard time. Apple Daily is no exception. Like many other media outlets, it has to fight for its survival. But unlike many others, it has a special place in the media landscape and society as a whole. Still, a significant number of people see the existence of room for Apple Daily to operate and compete freely for readers is an important sign of the city’s diversity and tolerance of views that are deemed extreme.
For the media to play its role as the fourth power to monitor the wrongdoings of people with power and wealth, they should be free from political persecution and interference.
For many decades, journalists in Hong Kong had been given much room in their reporting without being subject to threats to their personal safety and political intimidation by the authorities. Scenes of police officers en masse raided at newsrooms appeared in footage of news in Third World places. Journalists in Hong Kong would have never thought they happened in the city.
It could not be more blatant and ironic that the Hong Kong Police has imposed a new rule on cherry-picking media they deem as friendly and cooperative for reporting in cordoned-off areas during the searches on Monday.
Under the rule, the Police would select media outlets which they consider as being more cooperative and trustworthy to have access to restricted areas in their operation, according to Police Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung.
Another police officer, meanwhile, told journalists they would also take into account the scale of media outlets in their selection. She told reporters they would not pick media outlets which were uncooperative and had hindered the work of officers in their previous operation.
The unilateral alteration of rules by the Police aimed to penalise “uncooperative” journalists through restriction of their access to news events is a clear departure from the principle of fairness by the Government in coordinating with media’s reporting.
It is yet another case of the Government becoming more like a mainland city in the way it handles media, among many other things.
Chris Yeung, Chief Writer of CitizenNews, an online news platform, is a veteran journalist formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.
This article was first published on Apple Daily website on August 13, 2020.