Scale of Apple Daily intervention sends a ripple through media

Though not unexpected, it was the scale of China's move on Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai that may have caused surprise.

Some 200 Hong Kong police swarmed through the colourful newspaper's offices on Monday after arresting Lai at his home. They took away numbers of boxes of documents, and also arrested his two sons and several senior executives, placing a cordon around the offices.

The arrests were reportedly made both under the new security laws - Lai, who is 72, has been an outspoken champion of democracy - and on allegations that he had "colluded" with foreign forces.

At the same time, shares in Apple Daily's publisher, Next Digital rose by almost four times in what was seen as support for Lai and the pro-democracy movement, but may have been speculation on a change of leadership.

The move comes at a time of extreme tension between China and the US, and follows a visit Lai made to Washington last year, during which he met vice president Mike Pence and secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

The Hong Kong security laws - described by Lai in June as a "death knell" for the special administrative region - have already prompted other publishers to review their presence there. Last month, the New York Times said it would move some office functions and a third of its journalists to Seoul in South Korea.

Lai owns Apple Daily news media businesses in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which are known not only for their political stance, but for their colourful and sometimes suggestive imagery, and high production standards. Editions - printed using Australian ink and technical support - have been longstanding winners of regional print awards.

Today, both are true multimedia publishers, so although Hong Kong police shut down the relatively old-tech radio operation and cordoned off Apple Daily's newsroom, Next Digital continued to get the message out online.

In June, Next Digital reported a net loss of HK$415 million (A$74.8 million) - its fifth in a row - and forecast "choppy waters" ahead for media companies. Some 140 staff were being laid off in Taiwan, as the company sought to deal with the "perfect storm" of the protests and US-China tensions, the pandemic, and consequent loss of advertising revenue.

• Writing in The Conversation, University of Melbourne teaching fellow and PhD candidate Brendan Clift suggests Lai's case is "intended as a warning - 'killing the chicken to scare the monkey', to borrow a Chinese saying - and an inducement for the city's journalists to self-censor".

He points to Hong Kong's plunge on the Reporters Without Borders index - from 18th in its inaugural World Press Freedom Index in 2002, to 80th in 2020. "Over the years, much of Hong Kong's media has been bought up by China-owned or affiliated entities, some of which are ultimately controlled Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong," says Clift, asserting that more than half of Hong Kong's media owners are now members of political bodies on the mainland.

He also points to changes in the levels of restraint imposed on international media, most notably through denial of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet's visa and New York Times reporter Chris Buckley's Hong Kong work permit.

• The arrest of Jimmy Lai, continued detention of Zimbabwean journalist and 2010 Nieman Fellow Hopewell Chin'ono, and increased jail time for Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein in Egypt, have prompted an expression of "grave concern" by WAN-Ifra and its World Editors Forum.

WAN-Ifra president Fernando De Yarza Lopez-Madrazo said the arrests and raid confirmed fears that the new law would be used to silence pro-democracy voices and the press. "It is a dark day for journalism and press freedom in Hong Kong.

"We strongly condemn the actions of Hong Kong's National Security Department police on Monday as an assault on its citizens' freedoms. It will unnerve not just the millions of inhabitants who were out on the streets for months on end, in a bid to uphold democracy, but journalists and human rights' advocates worldwide. It risks increasing self-censorship in the city and stifling critical journalism."

Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin'ono had been denied bail and accused of stoking violence ahead of planned anti-government protests, while Hussein's detention was extended for another 45 days on Sunday. He has been in jail since December 2016, surpassing the legal limit of detention without trial, with Egypt ignoring calls by the UN for it to end the arbitrary detention.

President of the World Editors Forum Warren Fernandez expressed concern about the rise in jailings of journalists. "We stand with editors on the continent in calling for the release of Mr Chin'ono and urge regional powers to put pressure on the Zimbabwean government to stop criminalising critical journalism."

"We also believe that Mr Hussein should be released, particularly in light of the worsening health conditions in Egypt's jails." Last month veteran Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir, who contracted COVID-19 while in pre-trial detention, died in hospital.

Pictured: Police swarm through Next Digital's offices in Hong Kong; and (above) cordon off the newsroom (photo: Apple Daily)

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