Over 100 international media leaders around the world have expressed support for detained Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong in a joint statement on Tuesday organised by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong authorities condemned the petition in a press release on the same day, saying it “interfered” with judicial proceedings.
The RSF joint statement was signed by publishers, editors-in-chief, and senior editors from 42 countries. Signatories included two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa.
“We stand with Jimmy Lai. We believe he has been targeted for publishing independent reporting, and we condemn all charges against him. We call for his immediate release,” the statement read.
“[Jimmy Lai] has become an emblematic figure in the fight for press freedom in Hong Kong and globally. The action also seeks to highlight the broader dire state of press freedom in the territory, which has deteriorated sharply in recent years,” the signatories added.
The media tycoon, who founded the now-defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, is currently facing prosecution under the security law and the colonial-era sedition law.
Lai faces a total of four charges, including two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, one count of collusion with foreign forces, and an offence linked to allegedly seditious publications. The media mogul could face life imprisonment.
The 75-year-old is currently serving a five year and nine month prison term over another fraud case. He has been remanded in custody since December 2020.
The statement’s signatories also called for the release of 13 detained journalists in Hong Kong, and for any remaining charges to be dropped against 28 journalists targeted under legislation such as the Beijing-imposed national security legislation during the past three years.
Lai arrest ‘unrelated’ to press freedom
The arrest and prosecution of Lai, and other entities concerned, were completely unrelated to the issue of press freedom, the government said in a statement on Tuesday.
They were arrested for suspected crimes such as fraud and collusion with foreign forces, the administration said.
The government also said they “strongly opposed and vehemently condemned the blatant and wrongful attempt by some organisations and individuals to interfere with the judicial proceedings… under the pretext of press freedom.”
“Such an attempt is an affront to the rule of law,” the statement read.
Attempts to interfere with the city’s judicial proceedings “by means of political power, in order to procure a defendant’s evasion of the criminal justice process, is a reprehensible act undermining the rule of law of Hong Kong,” the government said.
In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.
The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.
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