Cliff Buddle
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Cliff Buddle
My Take
by Cliff Buddle

A free media is at the core of ‘one country, two systems’

  • The national security law states that human rights are to be ‘respected and protected’ and refers expressly to press freedom. These must not be allowed to become empty words

The dramatic demise of Apple Daily last week marks the end of an era and raises further questions not just about the future of Hong Kong’s media industry but also the city’s way of life.

Not everyone is sorry to see the closure of the racy tabloid-style newspaper, with its strident anti-government stance, following arrests of six senior members of staff and the freezing of assets under the national security law.

But the scramble to buy a prized copy of the final edition on Thursday and hurried efforts to preserve content on Apple ’s website show the level of support the newspaper enjoyed among Hong Kong people.

Whether you agree with its political position or not, there is no denying the impact Apple has had on the city’s media scene. It launched with much fanfare in 1995, shortly after my own arrival in Hong Kong. This was a time of fierce competition for local media.

The Eastern Express, a new English-language newspaper, had hit the streets the previous year. But it was the arrival of Apple Daily that raised the stakes and fuelled competition. The investment in journalism, comprehensive coverage of Hong Kong news, scoops, exposes, and quest to hold the powerful to account energised the industry. Everyone had to lift their game.

There was a less palatable side to the paper. The sensational stories, graphic portrayal of sex and violence, and no-holds-barred approach to news sometimes caused discomfort to even the most ardent supporters of press freedom.

In more recent times it became increasingly identified with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, controversially providing active support for both the Occupy Protests of 2014 and anti-government demonstrations in 2019. Its views have provided a counterpoint to the city’s many pro-government publications.

The closure of Apple Daily is devastating for the hundreds of loyal members of its staff who have now lost their jobs at a time when media firms are already struggling with the impact of the pandemic. It is ironic to recall that one of the first big scandals after the 1997 handover involved a decision by the Department of Justice not to prosecute a media tycoon with links to the government partly because of concerns such a move would lead to the loss of valuable media jobs.

The closure of Apple Daily followed a police raid on the newsroom and the arrest of executives, editors and a senior leader writer. They are accused of breaching the security law by inviting foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong. Charges have been laid against some of those arrested and it is now for the courts to decide whether the law has been broken. Those concerned, it should not be forgotten, are innocent until proven guilty.

Targeting journalists and citing newspaper articles as evidence in the case has alarmed the profession. The security law is expressed in very broad terms and, a year after it was passed, there remains much uncertainty about what constitutes an offence.

Newly appointed Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu said when security minister that Apple’s conduct should be distinguished from “normal journalistic work”. That is of little comfort. How is the term to be defined? There is no “normal journalism” defence in the national security law.

The lack of clarity has left journalists continuing to do their duty under a dark cloud of uncertainty. Meanwhile, columnists are laying down their pens, civil society is in retreat and artists, filmmakers, libraries and museums are feeling the chilling effect of the law. This is not good for Hong Kong.

A free and robust media scene has long set the city apart from other cities in Asia. It is at the core of the “one country, two systems” concept and essential if Hong Kong is to maintain its status as an international financial centre. The national security law states that human rights are to be “respected and protected” and refers expressly to press freedom. These must not be allowed to become empty words.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A free media is at the core of ‘one country, two systems’