Moderator: Baroness Helena Kennedy KC
Speakers: Sebastien Lai, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, Jason Rezaian
Jimmy Lai is a 75-year-old British citizen based in Hong Kong. He is a renowned media owner, writer, an outspoken critic of corruption and human rights abuses by the Chinese government and a high-profile advocate for democracy. He founded Next Media, which until its forced closure by the authorities was Hong Kong’s leading independent media outlet, publishing the only major Chinese language newspaper which was not State controlled and a thorn in the side of the increasingly pro-Beijing regime, Apple Daily.
Mr Lai has become a powerful symbol of the struggle to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as China’s Communist Party exerts ever greater control over the territory. The draconian National Security Law (“NSL”) was enacted in Hong Kong in July 2020 after historic pro-democracy protests swept the city. The NSL is now being used to target journalists, writers, academics, lawyers and activists who criticise the authorities. While Jimmy Lai and his colleagues are the most prominent media targets, the law has spread a chill through the Hong Kong community of journalists. Mr Lai has been at the forefront of a severe crackdown on Hong Kong’s independent press that has virtually paralysed locally driven and independent reporting. He has been imprisoned since 2020 and has faced a barrage of prosecutions for his journalism, his writing and his participation in peaceful protest. He has already served lengthy sentences of imprisonment for peaceful pro-democracy activities and been convicted on spurious charges related to an alleged lease violation, which have been widely internationally condemned. Mr Lai now faces trial for alleged sedition and offences under the NSL in relation to Apple Daily publications – for his journalism. His trial is due to begin in September 2023 and may lead to lifelong imprisonment – and to Mr Lai dying behind bars.
Mr Lai’s arrest, conviction and ongoing imprisonment, and the closure of Apple Daily, have attracted international condemnation by United Nations experts, regional bodies, governments around the world and civil society. The European Union External Action Service has raised grave concerns regarding the plight of Mr Lai and other Apple Daily journalists and staff, and in 2021 the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Hong Kong and Apple Daily, highlighting that Mr Lai faces a life sentence under the NSL charges and that “Apple Daily had always been an open and critical voice vis-à-vis the mainland and Hong Kong’s leadership and was the only Chinese-language newspaper in Hong Kong that was free from the Chinese Government’s control.” The US Government has described the charges against Mr Lai as spurious and has expressed its ongoing deep concern “about the deterioration in the protection for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the systematic dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy of National Security Law (NSL)”, and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has stated that, “Hong Kong authorities have mounted a persistent and politically motivated campaign against the free press, imprisoned Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, and forced the closure of that publication – a bastion of independent reporting…” Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, voiced alarm that Mr Lai has faced “negative consequences for the exercise of [his] fundamental human rights” and raised concern that the NSL is “leading journalists to increasingly self-censor, to avoid clashing with its vaguely formulated offences”.
Numerous non-governmental organisations have also expressed alarm at Mr Lai’s case and the broader situation in Hong Kong. In December 2020 Mr Lai was awarded a special prize during the 2020 RSF Press Freedom Awards Ceremony by Reporters Without Borders for his work. In November 2021, he was awarded the “Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award” by the Committee to Protect Journalists for extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom. In December 2021 he and the newsroom staff at Apple Daily were also awarded the “Golden Pen of Freedom” award by the World Association of News Publishers. That month, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa highlighted Mr Lai’s plight in her 2021 Nobel Peace Prize lecture.
This expert panel will discuss the case of Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily, and the wider ramifications of this case for media freedom and the rule of law in Hong Kong and across the region. This panel is timely and urgent, taking place in the months leading up to Jimmy Lai’s September 2023 trial. Moderating the discussion is Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, Director of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, who has been sanctioned by the Chinese government for her human rights work in relation to China as a Parliamentarian. Sebastien Lai, Jimmy Lai’s son, will describe how his father and family have been targeted, and why he is now leading the international #FreeJimmyLai campaign. Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who heads Jimmy Lai’s international legal team and also represents his son Sebastien, will discuss why this case is emblematic of risks to journalists and media organisations in the region and around the world, and Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post will bring his perspective, as an expert in media freedom issues but also as a journalist who has been imprisoned for his work and who has seen first-hand the value and importance of an international solidarity campaign to secure his release.
Organised in association with Doughty Street Chambers.