Reporters in Hong Kong are navigating a dangerous red line under the Beijing-imposed national security law.
- Apple Daily was shut down in late June after authorities froze its assets and arrested a number of staff
- Leading media figures including Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai are facing life in prison under the national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year
- Three former Apple Daily reporters say they fear more media outlets could be targeted next
High-profile media figures are facing life in prison following a crackdown by authorities for allegedly colluding with foreign forces.
Seven people central to the defunct pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily have been charged, including its outspoken founder Jimmy Lai, who remains behind bars.
Hong Kong police have said dozens of articles published by the paper are evidence of an alleged conspiracy to encourage foreign nations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.
The ABC’s 7.30 program has interviewed three former Apple Daily reporters who remain in Hong Kong and have decided to speak out about the situation, despite the risks they face.
Ka Lai Leung was a feature writer at the paper and is now working as an independent citizen journalist publishing content on her own platform.
She fears authorities could come after her or other reporters.
“This is the major worry that we’re facing,” she told 7.30.
“It can be quite sudden, like suddenly tomorrow at 6:00am they will march into your house and say that you’re under arrest and we have to search your home.
“That gives us a huge pressure.”
But Leung refused to comment when asked about the allegations being made against her former bosses because she feared breaking the law.
“It’s significant that I can’t answer.”
Her colleague, Alvin Chan, also refused to answer.
“I think it’s too risky for me to comment about this question,” he said.
Pro-Beijing politician says Apple Daily published ‘subversive’ content
Critics such as Paul Tse, a pro-Beijing politician in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, are happy to comment.
He believes the Apple Daily paper went too far.
“It has been publishing content and articles and what have you, which might be considered subversive, inciting other countries, foreigners, to sanction Hong Kong, to sanction the Chinese government, to do this and that, in a way to topple the Hong Kong administration,” Mr Tse said.
Apple Daily was a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy protests that engulfed the city in 2019 over a proposal to allow criminal extraditions to the mainland.
Central to the protests was a concern the one country, two systems deal that was meant to offer some autonomy to the city until 2047 was quickly being undermined by China’s government.
Beijing responded to the protests by imposing the national security law midway through last year.
Authorities have used it to crack down on opposition voices, using broad clauses related to subversion or collusion with foreign forces to arrest democracy supporters and media figures.
Mr Tse said he backed the national security law, even though he admitted it was draconian.
“Like most other national security laws elsewhere in Australia, in the US or what have you, these laws are meant to be tough and meant to be very extensive, are meant to be very sort of draconian.”
The Biden administration has condemned the crackdown on Apple Daily’s leadership and accused Hong Kong’s authorities of using the national security law to silence dissent and stifle freedom of expression.
But Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has rejected that and scoffed at the idea press freedom was under threat.
“Don’t try to beautify these acts of endangering national security,” Ms Lam said.
After 26 years in operation, Apple Daily shut down for good in late June after police raided its office for the second time, arresting chief editor Ryan Law and four others.
After the company’s assets were frozen, the board decided it was time to stop publishing.
Journalist ‘thankful’ for Apple Daily
Alvin Chan wrote a lead story on the front page of the historic final edition of Apple Daily, which saw Hong Kongers line up in long queues to purchase it.
One million copies of the final edition were printed.
Speaking to the ABC, Chan became emotional when thinking about the final edition.
Unlike others who have left the media industry or fled Hong Kong, Chan continues to work as a reporter, recording videos and analysing news events for outlet Stand News.
What would be routine elsewhere in the world is now a simple but risky act of defiance.
His latest video is about what he sees as the erosion of free speech, after a prominent teachers union disbanded following heavy criticism by Chinese state media.
“Unless you totally obey or listen to the authority … there’s always risk.”
Apple Daily was established by Jimmy Lai two years before the United Kingdom handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
That history continued to be central to the provocative tabloid’s ethos, according to Mr Chan.
“Our boss Jimmy Lai … he believed that the media should play a very key role when Hong Kong returned to China, so that we could still support the development of the democracy and also the society,” he said.
‘Even now, we don’t really understand the allegations’
In total, nine people associated with Apple Daily have been arrested under the national security law.
Seven are now facing charges, mainly related to an allegation of collusion with foreign forces.
Chan said he was very concerned about the harsh penalties they could be facing.
“Perhaps they don’t have a chance to leave the jail, or maybe they [will] die in the jail,” he said.
“Even now, we don’t really understand the allegations.”
Another recent case involving activist Andy Li has revealed some of what may be alleged against Jimmy Lai.
In Mr Li’s case, prosecutors alleged Jimmy Lai and his right-hand man Mark Simon were masterminds of a conspiracy that included providing funding to a protest group which then lobbied foreign forces to impose sanctions on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
Andy Li and another person have pleaded guilty to the alleged conspiracy.
Pro-Beijing politician Mr Tse has seized on the case, saying it could be “very damaging to Jimmy Lai”.
Some foreign governments, including the United States, have imposed sanctions on key Hong Kong figures.
In 2019, while the protests were raging in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai spoke to the ABC.
At the time he dismissed allegations being made by Chinese state media that he had colluded with foreign forces and he promised to continue to back the democracy fight.
Some journalists are walking away, but others remain defiant
It’s been more than two months since the last day at Apple Daily.
When former reporter Elven Yu returns to the headquarters, its front gate is still adorned with signs of support.
Coming back makes him feel devastated.
In a window, he spots a simple act of resistance.
“You can see there is still some poster or some kind of A4 paper sticking up there saying, ‘You can’t kill us all,'” he said.
Mr Yu has made the painful decision to quit the media.
He is pessimistic about its future under the national security law.
“It is pretty likely that another Apple Daily would occur in the future,” he said.
“I would consider the NSL, the national security law, as the biggest damage to the whole industry.
There is widespread concern about the negative impact on free speech reaching far beyond Apple Daily.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association’s annual report, called Freedom in Tatters, found the media environment was “rapidly deteriorating”.
It cites as examples a prosecution of an investigative journalist for accessing information in a public database and an aggressive overhaul of broadcaster RTHK by the Hong Kong government, which it says shows reckless disregard for editorial independence.
But despite that pessimism about the future, Leung is determined to keep publishing.
“If you’re afraid of the unknown red line, then you will be paralysed,” she said.
Michael Atkin is an Asia Reporting Fellow for the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and this story was supported by funding from the JNI.