Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has honored Jimmy Lai, a jailed Hong Kong publisher known for supporting the city’s pro-democracy protests.
The press group’s Press Freedom Awards honored Lai with a special prize for his courage in the face of “the sharp decline in press freedom in Hong Kong due to pressure from the Chinese regime.”
Reporters Without Borders said that Lai’s publications continue to openly criticize the Chinese government and widely covered last year’s pro-democracy protests.
Lai was arrested by Hong Kong police on Aug. 10 for alleged fraud and collusion with foreign forces, a crime under the controversial new national security law in the Chinese territory.
The 72-year-old Catholic was earlier arrested in February and in April on charges of joining an illegal assembly.
He was denied bail on Dec. 3 on the charge of fraud related to the lease of a building that houses his Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper.
In a pre-recorded video translated by the English edition of Apple Daily, Lai said: “The work Reporters Without Borders [has done] is so important, reminding us in Asia and in the world of the value of open and free press.”
“Now, our open and free press in Hong Kong is being clamped down by the [ruling Chinese Communist Party] by using the national security law,” he said.
“We are not even allowed to demonstrate.”
“I’m afraid that without the news, the world will forget us,” he said. “Please, fellow reporters, please keep on writing about us.”
Risks made to inform the public
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the Reporters Without Borders, said “high standards, courage, impact, and independence, all while respecting journalism ethics,” are among the criteria of the awards.
He said the awards aim “to support all of the nominees, their work and highlight the risks they frequently must take to inform the public.”
Others awarded were Russian journalist Elena Milashina with the Prize for Courage, Afghan radio station Merman with the Prize for Impact, and Egyptian chief editor Lina Attalah with the Prize for Independence.
This year’s award ceremony was held in Taipei in recognition of Taiwan’s strong track record in supporting press freedom.
“Taiwan consistently ranks among the top [countries] in the Asian region and presents the best alternative model to the Chinese authoritarian system,” said Cédric Alviani, East Asia Bureau head of the organization.
Lai arrested in August, jailed in December
The day after Lai’s arrest in August, the stock price of his company, Next Digital rose as high as 331 percent. Apple Daily said that more than 500,000 copies of its subsequent day’s paper were printed, five times the usual number.
The front page of Apple Daily the day after Lai’s arrest showed him in handcuffs with the headline: “Apple Daily must fight on.”
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, an agency of mainland China, welcomed the arrest and called for Lai to be severely punished.
Human rights groups and media organizations around the world condemned the arrest of Lai as an attack on press freedom.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association described a police raid raid on Lai’s offices as “horrendous” and unprecedented while former governor Chris Patten called it “the most outrageous assault yet” on Hong Kong’s press.
On Dec. 2, Lai reported to a police station as part of his bail condition for his August arrest but was immediately arrested for fraud.
Within the next 48 hours the court denied bail on the fraud charge over “accusations that they violated lease terms for Next Digital office space.”
Lai was sent to Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on Dec. 3 and will remain in custody until his next court hearing in April 2021.
Lai is currently being held in a solitary cell at the detention center, where he has received visits from his sons and from Hong Kong’s outspoken Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Lai was born to a rich family in mainland China in 1947. His family suffered once the communists took power in 1949, with his mother being sent to a labor camp. At the age of 12 he was smuggled into Hong Kong.
Cardinal Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, baptized him in 1997.