Hong Kong’s Apple Daily did not have full editorial independence as senior staff had ‘no choice’ but to follow Jimmy Lai’s orders, court hears

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily did not have full editorial independence as senior staff had ‘no choice’ but to follow Jimmy Lai’s orders, court hears

Hong Kong’s now-defunct Apple Daily tabloid did not have full editorial independence as senior staff had “no choice” but to follow the instructions of founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, a court heard on Monday.

Ex-publisher and defendant turned prosecution witness Cheung Kim-hung said editorial independence was merely an ideal for the newsroom as even the highest-ranked editors could not deviate from the directions of the 76-year-old media boss.

“So my role was to supervise [the senior management] to ensure they followed Mr Lai’s editorial policies,” Cheung said during cross-examination by the defence.

“We indeed had a wish for editorial independence, but in terms of Mr Lai’s editorial policies and requests for us, we had no choice.”

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Lai has pleaded not guilty to two conspiracy charges of collusion with foreign forces under the Beijing-decreed national security law, as well as a third count of conspiracy to print and distribute seditious publication under colonial-era legislation.

Prosecutors spent seven days examining Cheung’s evidence in support of their case that Lai orchestrated an anti-China campaign using Apple Daily, over which the tycoon was said to have complete editorial policy control.

Lai’s legal team on Monday downplayed Lai’s role in various advertising and publication strategies, arguing that Cheung and other senior executives had their own input.

Defence Senior Counsel Robert Pang Yiu-hung pointed to one occasion where the tycoon expressed doubts about Cheung’s idea to seek the assistance of opposition district councillors in asking readers to subscribe to Apple Daily.

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Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai at his company’s headquarters in 2020. Photo: K. Y. Cheng

“Let them do it spontaneously. Would it be embarrassing for us to launch such an initiative? After all, we are a profit-making organisation. I may be too sensitive [as Apple Daily’s owner],” Lai said in a text message to the ex-publisher.

The court heard Cheung put the proposal into action anyway, with a poster submitted to the court suggesting former Sha Tin district council member Billy Chan Shiu-yeung had arranged question and answer sessions to help tackle difficulties faced in signing up to Apple Daily’s paid services.

In another text message conversation with ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man, Cheung appeared to echo Lai’s accusations against former chief executive Leung Chun-ying that he exerted pressure on businesses that advertised in Apple Daily in March 2019.

“Such conduct by CY Leung is nothing new. It has been like this all these years, lashing out at advertisers to pressure Apple Daily so that advertisers will pull out. A fact indeed,” Cheung wrote, adding the tabloid would “definitely not compromise” and continue to safeguard free speech and other core values of the city.

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Pang said there were occasions when Cheung would implement Lai’s suggestions after the latter expressed his “thoughts” to him.

The counsel also highlighted the differing views conveyed in a WhatsApp group discussion among senior executives about the inclusion of Apple Daily’s logo on a “pro-resistance” poster distributed by the Democratic Party.

“So that suggests Mr Lai’s instructions are not invariably followed,” Pang said. “The views of everyone were important, not just the views of Mr Lai.”

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Cheung rejected that contention and maintained that what the tycoon said to him and his colleagues were more than mere “values”.

He said Lai had played a prominent role in lobbying for active public participation in the 2019 anti-government protests and had given specific instructions to Apple Daily reporters on their coverage.

“[The instructions were] not just about freedom, democracy or free speech, but [they were] about where the entire newspaper was heading,” the witness said.

Cheung also pushed back at the defence’s argument that Lai’s input before 2019 was limited to commercial decisions, adding the tycoon’s “mission” had always been to secure universal suffrage for Hong Kong.

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