‘Conspiracy to commit journalism’: Human rights lawyers want journalists out of political crosshairs

By James Costa | 09 Jul 24

The Australian government must join the United States and the United Kingdom in demanding the “immediate unconditional release” of detained Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, international human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson said in Melbourne on Thursday.

Fresh from her success helping secure the release of Julian Assange, Robinson is in Australia campaigning for the 76-year-old billionaire businessman, Hong Kong’s oldest political prisoner.

Speaking at a media freedom forum at the University of Melbourne alongside Lai’s son Sebastien and her UK colleague Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, leader of Lai’s international legal team, Robinson urged the Australian government to use all available diplomatic channels.

“I think it will make a real difference,” she said, acknowledging the presence of Australian journalist Cheng Lei in the audience at the University of Melbourne. After dialogue between Chinese and Australian leaders, Cheng Lei was freed in October 2023 after more than three years of detention on national security accusations.

“If we can free Julian Assange, we can free Jimmy Lai,” declared Robinson.

Jennifer Robinson speaking at the forum at the University of Melbourne last week, next to a framed final edition of Apple Daily, with the headline ‘we’ll see you again’. Photo: Emily Kulich/Melbourne Press Club.

The “leverage points” and the geopolitics of Lai’s situation were very different to Assange’s case, Robinson noted, but “the simple fact that we were able to negotiate Julian’s release from the most powerful country in the world, is hope for publishers and journalists everywhere, including in this case”.

Lai, a Chinese and British citizen and billionaire businessman, was arrested after the 2019-20 mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, during which his newspaper took a prominent role. He has spent more than 1200 days in solitary confinement. Six other staff members of his shut-down newspaper, the Apple Daily, are also facing national security charges.

Lai is one of 172 Hong Kongers charged under the controversial and wide-ranging 2020 national security laws. According to CNN, the conviction rate of the more than 100 trials completed under these laws is 100 per cent.

In 2019, after the Hong Kong government proposed a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, millions of protesters took to the streets in a widespread act of defiance. While the bill was withdrawn in September 2019, by mid 2020 protests lost momentum, largely due to Covid-19 lockdowns and China imposing national security laws on Hong Kong that outlawed public gatherings.

Lai was sentenced and is serving five years for fraud and other charges, which human rights lawyer Gallagher described as “wholly spurious”. He is also facing national security charges including sedition and conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, which Gallagher says is based on “farcical” evidence.

“I mean, this is conspiracy to commit journalism, to put it simply.”

Addressing the Melbourne forum moderated by journalist and former BBC and NPR China correspondent Dr Louisa Lim, Gallagher said: “The vast bulk of the prosecution, the allegation is [that] by having a newspaper with an editorial line which was pro-democracy, anti-corruption, and stood up to Beijing’s leaders, and stood up to excesses of power, that is criminal.”

Robinson said she was “encouraged” by a meeting last Monday with foreign minister Senator Penny Wong, who subsequently released a statement expressing concern about Lai’s case.

“It’s incredibly positive that [Wong] was first willing to meet us,” Robinson said. Making her concerns public, the senator was sending “a message to China”.

But Robinson urged Australia to do more, including joining “with the US and UK in calling for [Lai’s] immediate release” and raising the issue “bilaterally with China and at multilateral forums.”

“Australia is one of those countries that we think can and should speak out together with our allies the UK and the US, for Jimmy’s case and I think it will make a real difference,” she said.

“Raising the political cost to the government concerned, of continuing the prosecution of a publisher and journalist” and mobilising governments across the world to pressure Hong Kong was “really important” to ensure an outcome like Assange’s.”

Questioned about the effectiveness of such actions, Gallagher argued that China was acutely concerned about its international business relationships and its ability to attract foreign investment. “We know they care about that reputation”.

The closure of Lai’s Apple Daily by the Chinese government on 23 June 2021 was “essentially state-sponsored theft of a hugely successful business” and newspaper, Gallagher said.

“That should send a chill down the spines of any business person from any industry, from any country … operating in that environment.”

Lim described Apple Daily as a hugely popular, “scandalous” paper that mixed sensational stories with “explicitly political” content. Its overt support of the pro-democracy movement was what led to the 200 police-strong raid of its Hong Kong offices in August 2020 – the day after Hong Kong police arrested Lai.

The raid was internationally condemned by press freedom groups and resulted in a print run of 500,000 copies – which were said to have sold out after readers lined-up overnight to buy copies. After a subsequent June 2021 raid and the freezing of the newspapers’ and Lai’s assets, it was forced to shut down.

The prosecution of Lai follows a trend occurring worldwide – including in Australia – of “the law [being] weaponised against journalists in multiple ways”, Gallagher said.

This “lawfare” is a bit like “a legal game of whack-a-mole… where you’re having to face a war on multiple fronts… [journalist] Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta for example, when she was assassinated, had 48 different active lawsuits against her at the time”.

“That’s exactly the kind of tactics that are being used against Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong.”

Robinson said that while democratic countries were often quick to condemn countries such as China or Russia (where Washington Post journalist Evan Gershkovich is on trial for espionage), the hypocrisy of western states given their own record on whistleblower and journalistic freedom was not lost on autocratic governments.

“Routinely we would see Chinese officials saying, ‘look at the US they don’t have free speech because Julian Assange is in prison’,” Robinson said. “So I think we’ve got to be principled in our advocacy wherever it’s happening, because it is happening in western liberal democracies and in countries like China, and wherever it happens we have to stand against it”.

Sebastien Lai expressed deep pride in his father, who “could have left Hong Kong at any point” but was “doing right by himself and by the people of Hong Kong, by his journalists”. A famous photo from the 2019 Hong Kong protests shows Jimmy Lai, unmasked and on the front lines of the demonstrations.

Son of Jimmy Lai, Sebastien, expresses his concern about his fathers’ wellbeing after spending more than 1200 days in solitary confinement. Photo: Emily Kulich/Melbourne Press Club.

But his father’s incarceration is at immense personal cost. “There’s the biological aspect of it, where at 76, the situation can change very quickly … he’s facing trial under the national security law at the moment and that has a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

“Even if he gets five to six years, after ten years, that’s practically the same… so that’s why it’s so important for me, or for us, to get him out as soon as possible”.

Sebastien Lai recounted a story about a man interviewed waiting in a queue to buy a copy of the Apple Daily the day after Lai was arrested and when it was essentially “outlawed”.

“[The man] was asked…‘Are you still going to buy Apple Daily?’…he turns to the camera [and says] ‘I’ll buy it even if it was a blank piece of paper’.”

“I think for the journalists and for my father, trying to find the truth was the first sign of defiance,” said Sebastien Lai.