Six former executives of a now-defunct Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a conspiracy under the National Security Law that silenced and jailed most opposition voices in southern China territory.
Apple Daily employees were arrested last year in a crackdown on dissent after Beijing imposed the sweeping security law in response to widespread anti-government protests in 2019. They were charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces to promote national security endanger.
The law criminalizes inheritance tax, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign troops. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment. But the six were expected to receive lesser sentences due to their guilty pleas.
Publisher Cheung Kim-hung, associate publisher Chan Pui-man, editor-in-chief Ryan Law, editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung, and editorial writers Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee admitted to conspiring with the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai , to call for sanctions or blockades, or to engage in other hostile activities against Hong Kong or China.
Hong Kong dropped more than 60 places to 148th in Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index published in May. The media watchdog cited the closure of Apple Daily and Stand News, a vocal online media that gained popularity during the 2019 protests but was forced to shut down amid the ongoing crackdown.
The watchdog also said the city’s freedom of the press has suffered “an unprecedented setback” since the introduction of the security law that “serves as a pretext to silence independent voices” in the name of fighting national security crimes.
Prosecutors alleged that three Apple Daily-related companies were also involved in the conspiracy from July 1, 2020 — the day after the national security law was enacted — until the day of the newspaper’s last print edition, June 24, 2021.
They pointed to the English version of the publication, claiming that it was introduced by Lai for the purpose of asking foreign forces to impose sanctions or be hostile to Hong Kong or China. They said Lai was the mastermind of the conspiracy and the six acted to carry out the plans. After the security bill was passed, the Apple Daily denounced the legislation as “bad law” and called for resistance, she added.
Lai and the three companies were expected to plead not guilty to their charges and their trial will begin on December 1. If convicted, Lai faces life imprisonment. If convicted, the companies could be fined and the proceeds of the crime confiscated.
After hearing their pleas and the prosecution’s case, a Supreme Court judge sentenced the six. Their sentences would be handed down after Lai’s trial.
Local journalists and former Apple Daily employees were among the onlookers, with some waving to the defendants before and after the hearing.
Police took hard drives and laptops as evidence during a raid on the offices of Apple Daily in June 2021, which sent shockwaves through the city’s media. The arrests of top executives, editors and journalists at the newspaper, as well as the freezing of $2.3 million in assets, caused the newspaper to cease operations. It sold one million copies of the last edition.
Separately, nine people were found guilty of rioting during an October 2019 violent protest at another court in Hong Kong on Tuesday. They were among the thousands of residents arrested three years ago for their role in the widespread protests.