The Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom award of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), has been awarded to publisher Jimmy Lai and the staff of the Apple Daily newsroom in Hong Kong.
The award, made virtually during the 2021 World News Media Congress, highlights “the fears and challenges of journalists in Hong Kong, the region, and the world in the face of heightening curbs on their ability to do their jobs credibly and independently.”
“The jailing of a publisher, the arrest of an editor-in-chief and his senior colleagues, the shuttering of a newsroom, and the closure of a media title – the 2021 Golden Pen award recognizes, and reflects on, all of these,” said Warren Fernandez, president of the World Editors Forum, in announcing the award.
“Journalism is at the forefront of history,” said Sebastien Lai, accepting the award on behalf of his imprisoned father, Jimmy, and the Apple Daily Hong Kong staff. “It records the now and informs the future. It is a check against the powerful, and the voice of the people in times of strife.”
“With Apple Daily closing in Hong Kong, and a crackdown against journalism across the region, there will be less and less people shining light in these dark corners,” he continued. “Thank you very much for this award but please keep dad, the Apple Daily newsroom in Hong Kong, and the people of Hong Kong in your thoughts as these events unfold.”
Until its final print edition on 24 June 2021, Apple Daily was one of Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspapers. But on 17 June, Hong Kong authorities used the controversial national security law to arrest editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four other senior executives, and freeze the company’s assets as well as those of founder, Jimmy Lai – who at that point had already been in jail for over seven months. One week later, the paper was forced to close.
Following the passing of the national security law in June 2020, which opponents say severely limits freedom of speech and the right to protest in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai was arrested on 10 August at his home for allegedly colluding with foreign forces – a crime under the new legislation. That same morning the Apple Daily Newsroom was raided by over 200 national security officers. Lai was soon released on bail, but by 3rd December 2020, he had been arrested once again for his involvement in unauthorized protests. He remains in prison facing six different charges that could lead to a life sentence.
Jimmy Lai has been an outspoken critic of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong and a high-profile supporter of the pro-democracy movement, making him, and his media company, regular targets for the authorities.
In 2013, a group of masked men ambushed his home, threatening workers and burning thousands of copies of Apple Daily. One year later, anti-corruption officials raided Lai’s home over leaked documents that showed he had donated millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups ahead of the 2014 occupy movement protests.
After fleeing mainland China at age 12 and settling in Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai worked his way from humble beginnings to lead a successful garment manufacturing empire. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he became an ardent critic of the Beijing government. He founded Next Media and in 1995, launched Apple Daily, which soon became one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers.
It wasn’t long before Apple Daily became a symbol of pro-democracy and public dissent. Its anti-government position resulted in advertising boycotts, as well as cyber hacks and attacks.
In April 2021, Apple Daily published a letter that Jimmy Lai had sent to staff from his prison cell –
“A journalist’s responsibility is to uphold justice,” he wrote. “The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”