Prosecutors in Hong Kong cited criticism from the US and UK on the “forced closure” of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily as evidence against a bail application by its former top executive Cheung Kim-hung, who is charged under the national security law.

The ex-CEO of Next Digital, the parent company of the now-defunct publication, was denied bail by the High Court last Friday pending trial over an alleged conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. In a written judgement released on Wednesday, Justice Susana D’Almada Remedios said the prosecution objected to Cheung’s bail on the grounds that he has a “close association” with the US and overseas political organisations.

Former Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung.
Former Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung. Photo: Stand News.

Public prosecutors Andy Lo and Crystal Chan referred to remarks made by British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on June 23, which described Apple Daily’s shutdown as a “chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” Raab also slammed the city’s authorities as using the security legislation as a tool to “curtail freedoms and punish dissent.”

A statement by the US Department of State issued on July 10 was mentioned as well, which criticised actions against Apple Daily as “suppressing journalism.” The statement was jointly signed by Washington and the governments of 20 countries, including Australia, France, Germany and Switzerland.

“[Cheung] and the co-conspirators have a close association with the USA and foreign political groups as evidenced by their prompt reactions condemning law enforcement actions against the applicant and the condemnation of NSL and enforcement actions against Apple Daily,” the judgement said, citing the prosecutors.

Cheung is among six senior directors and editors of Next Digital and Apple Daily who stand accused of conniving with the company’s founder Jimmy Lai to request foreign powers to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.

Apple Daily June 18, 2021
Apple Daily’s front page on June 18, 2021, the day after police raided its office and arrested five senior executives of the newspaper under the national security law. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Three companies tied to the once-influential newspaper have also been charged.

‘Substantial’ risks

Representing the government, Lo and Chan argued that Cheung played an “active” role in setting the editorial policies of Apple Daily and had authorised and directed the publication of “allegedly offending materials.” The ex-CEO was also said to have directed the picking of authors of editorials and choosing “specific themes” for articles.

Senior Counsel Jose Maurelett, on behalf of Cheung, disagreed with the prosecution, saying that the case against his client was based only on his management role at the media company. There was no evidence suggesting that Cheung was involved in the alleged conspiracy in his personal capacity, the lawyer said, nor was there proof to show he has any political or foreign ties.

The lawyer added that Cheung mainly handled the strategic planning, budgeting and business operations of Next Digital, without being involved in making editorial decisions.

“Next Digital Group has already permanently shut down the business of Apple Daily newspaper and Next Magazine… it is simply impossible for the Applicant to commit any alleged (or similar) act to endanger national security through the Next Digital Group or Apple Daily,” Maurelett said, according to D’Almada Remedios’ ruling.

jimmy lai
Jimmy Lai. File photo: StudioIncendo.

But the city’s prosecutors deemed the risk and ability of Cheung to continue to commit acts endangering national security to be “real and substantial.” They said the accused was still a director of the media group’s subsidiaries in Taiwan, adding that the digital platform Apple Online (Taiwan) continued to post articles that made “unfounded allegations” against the Hong Kong government and the city’s police force even after the security law was enacted.

D’Almada Remedios said that, after reviewing Cheung’s background, his associations, community ties and financial position, she was not satisfied that there were sufficient grounds for believing that he would not continue to commit acts endangering national security if bail was granted.

Cheung must remain in custody as he awaits a start date of his trial. He and his co-defendants are set to appear in court again on December 28.

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Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.