Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai encouraged Apple Daily to play up news of Beijing’s alleged cover-up of Covid infections in early 2020, court hears

Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai encouraged Apple Daily to play up news of Beijing’s alleged cover-up of Covid infections in early 2020, court hears

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying’s appeal to residents to stand against “totalitarianism” embodied by the Hong Kong government prompted the tabloid to play up news about Beijing’s alleged concealment of information in the first wave of Covid-19 infections in early 2020, a former senior executive told a court on Friday.

During the examination of Chan Pui-man, ex-associate publisher of the now-closed newspaper and an accomplice witness, the prosecution presented several articles written by Lai in an attempt to demonstrate his influence in news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

The veteran journalist was charged alongside Lai with conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the national security law. She pleaded guilty in November 2020 and was testifying against her 76-year-old former boss as the high-profile trial entered its 27th day.

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Former Apple Daily senior executive, Chan Pui-man (centre), is testifying against her ex-boss. Photo: Nora Tam

The articles brought up in West Kowloon Court were published amid the first coronavirus wave in mainland China in early 2020, with Chan confirming to the court that the tabloid called the novel disease “Wuhan pneumonia” in its news reports at that time.

The first cluster of cases were reported on December 31, 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province.

Among the articles was one titled “The plague of Wuhan, the death knell of the Chinese Communist Party”, published on February 9, 2020, with Lai writing: “Seeing that the [Hong Kong] government is ignoring our interests and suppressing us, we have to stand up against it.

“Under a haze of authoritarianism, the government has become the embodiment of totalitarianism. Hongkongers must save our Hong Kong by ourselves.”

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Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions Ivan Cheung Cheuk-kan asked Chan: “Was this the view Mr Lai expressed in any of the ‘lunchbox meetings’, and did it affect Apple Daily’s editorial decisions?”

“Lunchbox meetings” referred to regular exchanges between Lai and the tabloid’s division heads taking place from 2019 until his arrest in December 2020, the court heard.

Chan replied: “Yes.”

Mr Justice Alex Lee Wan-tang followed: “In what way?”

“For example, if he talked about the concealment of Covid-19, we would play up the news about foreign medical specialists and governments questioning the credibility of China.”

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Prosecutors also read out abstracts of two other column articles – one dated January 19, 2020 and titled “Absolute authoritarianism: where did Xi Jinping get his confidence from?” and another published on January 26 in the same year.

In the latter piece, Lai wrote that the anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong, the victory of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in the Taiwan presidential election in 2020, and the Covid-19 outbreak on the mainland were all “phenomena caused by Emperor Xi [Jinping] who is pushing the world in a downward direction due to his headstrong manner”.

“It is a crucial moment for the Chinese people to stand up and say ‘no’,” the last sentence of the article said.

Chan told the court that Lai had expressed “similar views” in the “lunchbox meetings” held in the office, which affected the reporting at the tabloid.

Apart from the national security offence, the Next Digital founder also faces a charge of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials under a colonial-era law. He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to life in prison if convicted.

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The court displayed text messages in which former publisher Cheung Kim-hung summarised a “lunchbox meeting” to Chan in December 2019. A key point indicated that “big news could instigate different special reports”, such as “topics of the extradition bill, big companies selling assets … the anniversary of the China-US trade war”.

Justice Lee asked Chan: “As far as you are aware, had anything been instigated by Apple Daily in this regard?”

“By the word ‘instigated’, Cheung meant that he hoped to develop more features to meet the requirements of Mr Lai … These are the topics Mr Lai would like to see,” she replied.

The tabloid subsequently published articles of those topics and planned to host talks to build readers’ loyalty, she said.

The trial was adjourned until February 19, with Chan continuing to testify.

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