A global association of news publishers has awarded jailed Hong Kong activist and media owner Jimmy Lai for defying threats, one year since he was detained under controversial security laws.
Mr Lai, also known as Lai Chee-ying, will be this year’s recipient of the Golden Pen of Freedom Award, together with staff of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s popular Chinese-language newspaper that was controversially shut last June. The award is an annual prize by the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) a grouping of more than 3,000 news publishing companies and 60 affiliated associations.
The decision was reached at the end of the virtual 2021 World News Media Congress by the publishers and said Mr Lai and his staffers were being awarded to highlight the fears and challenges for journalists in Hong Kong, the neighbouring regions and the world in general, but who nonetheless go on to publish independently.
“The jailing of a publisher, the arrest of an editor-in-chief and his senior colleagues, the shuttering of a newsroom, and the closure of a media title – the 2021 Golden Pen award recognises, and reflects on, all of these,” said Mr Warren Fernandez, president of the World Editors Forum, when announcing the winner on Wednesday.
Press Freedom award
Mr Lai, 74, known for online retail clothing line Giordano, founded Apple Daily and had last year been awarded the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom award. He was charged with fraud as the Hong Kong administration launched a controversial crackdown on activists.
In May, he was jailed to 20 months in prison for allegedly fueling a prohibited public protest against the government. He still faces other charges, including conspiring to defeat justice, colluding with foreign entities and other charges related to subversion. Hong Kong is an autonomous region of China, which has traditionally followed democracy, as opposed to the mainland’s communist system, in the famous one-country-two-systems policy promoted by Beijing.
But under the controversial National Security Law, pushed on Hong Kong by Beijing, Mr Lai could serve a life sentence if found guilty of the crimes he faces.
His son Sebastien Lai received the award on behalf of his father at the ceremony.
“Journalism is at the forefront of history,” said Sebastien Lai while picking up the prize. “It records the now and informs the future. It is a check against the powerful, and the voice of the people in times of strife. With Apple Daily closing in Hong Kong, and a crackdown against journalism across the region, there will be less and less people shining light in these dark corners,” he continued.
China has in the past rebuked international prize givers who award local dissidents and it was expected this could also attract another sneer from Beijing. In 2010, China refused to let jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo travel to receive his Nobel Peace prize. The Chinese author was announced winner while in detention for subversion.
Apple Daily was seen as a critical mouthpiece against China’s alleged overreach to Hong Kong’s political system. In June, Hong Kong cited the controversial national security law to arrest the paper’s senior editors and froze its accounts.
Under the new security laws, critics say press freedoms have been severely limited. Mr Lai had initially been bailed after a charge of colluding with foreign forces, but was later arrested for participating in pro-democracy rallies.
His supporters think he is being punished for criticising Beijing’s controls on Hong Kong and for supporting the usually massive pro-democracy movement.
Before jail, he had faced threats, including controversial tax evasion investigations, and unknown people who threatened to torch the offices of Apple Daily, after setting that day’s printed edition on fire.
Lai, born in Guangzhou in mainland China’s southern region in 1947, settled in Hong Kong at age 12 and started work in a garment factory. But he joined activism after the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 in Beijing, where authorities crushed pro-democracy protesters. He launched Apple Daily six years later.