Apple Daily HK Editorial: Uphold freedom of press with no regrets

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Will cease operations as most employees have resigned following a police raid last week in a national security probe.

Yesterday was the 26th anniversary of the founding of this newspaper. Apple Daily published news, commentaries, and features on its paper and website just like it has been doing since Jun 20, 1995. However, it was not easy for the newspaper to be published on this day of celebration.

On the eve of this newspaper’s birthday, both our newspaper and the local press suffered unprecedented blows. 500-strong police barged into our newsroom three days before our anniversary, ransacked news materials that have always been strictly protected, snatched away more than 40 computers, servers, and lots of news materials. This means that a lot of sources and sensitive materials were taken away.

That morning, five of our newspaper’s executives, including CEO Cheung Kim-hung and editor-in-chief Ryan Law were arrested. On the eve of the newspaper’s anniversary, Cheung and Law were charged and brought before a judge. With their bail application rejected, both celebrated Apple Daily’s 26th anniversary in detention, and not knowing when they would regain freedom. The impact on both of them and their families are beyond imagination.

The impact of the large-scale searches, coupled with arrests and charges, has been equally huge on the daily operation of the newspaper. The detention of Cheung and Law meant that the newspaper lost two of its leaders immediately, creating great obstacles to the operation of the company and news management.

By invoking the national security law to freeze the assets, totalling close to HK$20 million (US$2.6 million), of three companies related to Apple Daily has made cash flow difficult, and whether payrolls would be affected is a huge question.

Large-scale searches and arrests by the police have caused psychological distress, and journalists are much more concerned about stepping on the red line as they carry out their daily reporting work. This sort of triple-attack on our newspaper and the local press is unprecedented. It is a miracle in itself that the newspaper is able to publish on its anniversary, and it all depends on the hard work and professionalism of every single member of the company.

However, it is a fact in our faces that the road ahead is full of thorns. The aftermath of the searches and arrests has not been settled, and the political and legal pressure will continue to escalate. There is also the nightmare of the upcoming third and fourth searches, let alone the ambiguous and untraceable red line of the national security law. For Apple Daily to survive through all of these is not a promise to be made, and perhaps we could only go one step at a time, to persist one day at a time.

Other than the huge impact on Apple Daily, the searches and arrests by the police are sounding an alarm for the local press freedom at a volume that has never been heard before.

First off, the safeguard of the freedom of speech is to allow journalists to protect sensitive news materials, including the identities and contact information of complainants and informants. This time, with permission granted by the national security law, the police were able to obtain news information that was originally confidential, meaning that journalists and news organizations can no longer effectively protect sensitive information, and identities of “whistleblowers” could easily be revealed.

In the future, not only our newspaper alone, but other news organizations would find it hard for the public to trust them with insiders’ information, and for them to obtain powerful proof to expose scandals and mistakes of the government, officials, and organizations. This will greatly weaken the ability of the press to monitor those in power.

On the other hand, it is becoming very apparent that the Hong Kong national security law overrides local laws that protect people’s freedom and rights. Even news reports and commentaries that are based on facts could be regarded by the enforcement agencies to be treading the red line, and therefore lead to investigations, prosecutions, arrests, and charges.

Once under prosecution, news workers are almost left with no defence or protection, and must face a prolonged process of investigations and prosecutions, during which one could be detained for a long time and lose freedom. This prospect poses an enormous psychological threat to professional journalists, causing many to be daunted when interviewing and reporting to avoid sensitive topics and the mention of opposing voices and dissidents.

As for news commentary, the stakes are even higher. Since fair or fact-based commentaries cannot be used as effective defences, the pressure on commentators to self-censor will grow, causing many to protect themselves by consciously adopting the official narratives. Once we reach this stage, Hong Kong’s existing room for pluralistic and free speech will disappear very quickly, leaving behind nothing but a blank piece of paper known as the Basic Law’s guarantee of the freedom of speech.

Last weekend, the newly elected chairman of the Journalists Association, Ronson Chan Long-sing, said, “Freedom of press is already weak, but Hong Kong still needs news, journalists, and even more so, truth. We will continue to strive alongside our colleagues in the industry for what is left of freedom of press.”

Chan said it right. Under the chaos it is in, Hong Kong still needs the truth, and freedom of speech of the press. Without freedom of press, Hong Kong will lose its greatest institutional edge, which is also the greatest appeal to investors. The only question is whether the central government, the SAR government and the pro-Beijing camp understand this logic. – Apple Daily