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Aug. 10, 2020, 2:05 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   August 10, 2020

The fate of Hong Kong — whether it would retain its status as a relatively democratic and free enclave within Greater China or be pulled more tightly under Beijing’s authoritarian control — has been a matter of international concern for decades. But the pace of bad news around press freedom has quickened in recent weeks — even recent hours.

The latest: Last night (U.S. time), Hong Kong police raided the offices of Apple Daily, a popular pro-democracy news outlet, and arrested its billionaire owner, Jimmy Lai. Bloomberg’s Iain Marlow and Natalie Lung:

Lai was shown handcuffed as he was taken away by officers from his home on Monday morning. When a reporter asked Lai for his views on the arrest, he answered: “What views do I have? They want to arrest me.”

Apple Daily, which is under Lai’s media network Next Digital Ltd. and the biggest pro-democracy paper in Hong Kong, reported that nearly 200 officers were entering its offices.

The move was met with criticism from the U.K., which handed Hong Kong back to Chinese control in 1997. “We are deeply concerned by the arrest of Jimmy Lai and six other individuals in Hong Kong,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman James Slack said.

Police said 10 people were arrested on suspicion of “breaches” of the security legislation. A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office supported the arrest and said in a speech that Lai is working with foreign powers to seriously endanger national security.

Galileo Cheng livetweeted the police raid, which was also streamed on Apple Daily’s digital platforms.

Apple Daily is, according to the latest Digital News Report, the second-most popular online news source in Hong Kong, and the most popular pro-democracy source. (It ranks behind only TVB News, which has been frequently criticized for its pro-Beijing slant. Surveys have found TVB to be the least credible major news source in Hong Kong.)

The stock price of Lai’s conglomerate Next Digital, of which Apple Daily is a part, shot up today after the arrests and raid, closing up 183 percent — a show of support from Hong Kong activists and its financial sector.

Apple Daily editors say they’ll keep publishing. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club has condemned the raid:

The Apple Daily raid was the most high-profile media impact yet of Hong Kong’s new national security law, which makes it easier for the government to arrest opposition figures and journalists. Soon after the law was announced, The New York Times said it would be moving its Asian newsroom hub from Hong Kong to Seoul. Many other American and Western news outlets have significant operations in Hong Kong — until recently an island of relative press freedom in the region — and contingency plans are afoot for those who haven’t already announced moves.

To all that, add in this Atlantic piece from Aug. 1 by Timothy McLaughlin, on the internal travails of the English-language South China Morning Post.

“The purpose of the law is precisely to manufacture a climate of fear among all the governed here,” Kwai-Chueng Lo, the head of the writing program at Hong Kong Baptist University who has researched Hong Kong’s media, told me.

The SCMP sits at the center of many of these tensions. Founded in 1903, when Hong Kong was a British colony, the newspaper has long been the broadsheet of the city’s elites, “the paper to be gripped while riding the bus or to be seen on one’s doorstep in the morning,” the veteran journalist Yuen-ying Chan wrote in an academic article examining Hong Kong’s English-language media. Even beyond China, the SCMP has stood apart, operating free from the onerous press restrictions enforced in other Asian countries such as Singapore. Today, it is arguably the city’s most important title internationally, a position gained from a combination of both its size and its ownership (it is controlled by Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, one of China’s most successful tech companies).

But last year’s protests tested the paper, as the global media spotlight shifted to Hong Kong, and the SCMP’s reporters found themselves butting up against senior editors who often appeared to be overly deferential to authorities and largely unquestioning of police narratives, even as evidence of misconduct mounted…

[Senior executives, editors], and some journalists have bristled at criticism of the newspaper, lamenting that its ownership makes it an unfair target. Following a 2018 story in the Times that was critical of the SCMP, Liu sent an email to staff, reviewed by The Atlantic, in which he said the article “disappoints me, it does not surprise me,” and that it “misrepresents our mission and mischaracterizes our transformation.” (No corrections or clarifications have been made to the Times story.) At the end of his interview with The Atlantic, Chow offered a vague warning about writing critically about the newspaper. “The last thing I want to say is I hope your story can be factual. If it is not, if it is anyway defamatory to SCMP and our colleagues, we will defend ourselves,” he said. Asked how he would do this, Chow responded, “I don’t need to tell you, Tim. But I can tell you we will defend ourselves.”

November 13, 2019, photo of the aftermath of a Hong Kong protest by Renfeng Tang used under a Creative Commons license.

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