Media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and journalists from the now-shuttered Apple Daily Hong Kong were on Wednesday (Dec 1) awarded the World Association of News Publishers’ (Wan-Ifra) highest honour for their sacrifices in the cause of press freedom.
Lai, 72, is in jail for his role in organising and participating in pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.
Apple Daily, the popular Chinese-language newspaper he founded, was forced to close in June after the authorities froze its assets and arrested its senior executives under the city’s national security law.
At the time of its closure, the tabloid known for its pro-democratic stance and criticism of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese leaders had about 600 employees.
Mr Sebastien Lai, when accepting the award on behalf of his imprisoned father and the Apple Daily Hong Kong staff, referred to journalism as “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 fewer people shining light in these dark corners,” he said.
World Editors Forum president Warren Fernandez, in announcing the award virtually at the World News Media Congress, said that the Golden Pen honour 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”.
Wan-Ifra media freedom board chairman Victoria Svanberg said: “Jimmy Lai has paid a heavy price for his belief in democracy… The spirit that Apple Daily embodies must be allowed to live on.”
Editors from around the world joined in a video statement expressing solidarity with Lai, one of the highest-profile figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp, and his Apple Daily colleagues.
Lai faces a series of charges under a national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year in response to 2019’s massive and often violent protests, including colluding with foreign forces.
Beijing says the law is necessary to restore stability, but its critics say it clamps down on the city’s freedoms.
His Next Digital media group – the publisher of Apple Daily – was also forced to close earlier this year after it came under national security investigations.
The Golden Pen of Freedom is Wan-Ifra’s annual award recognising individuals or organisations that have made outstanding contributions in the defence and promotion of press freedom.
Previous winners of the Golden Pen award have included the late Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Kashoggi, who in 2018 was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who is the chief executive of the Rappler news portal known for its tough scrutiny of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, and Russian investigative journalist Dmitry Muratov, who is the chief editor of Novaya Gazeta.
Ms Ressa and Mr Muratov were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.