'Jailed for journalism': The case of British media mogul Jimmy Lai 'condemned to die in jail' for criticising China

28 May 2023, 09:18 | Updated: 28 May 2023, 09:19

Jimmy Lai, British-born media mogul currently detained in Hong Kong
Jimmy Lai, British-born media mogul currently detained in Hong Kong. Picture: Getty
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Slowly but surely, people are starting to wake up to the case of Jimmy Lai, who last year was jailed almost six years on national security laws in Hong Kong.

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Lai, who founded Hong Kong's publisher Apple Daily, has also been convicted on separate charges of fraud and organising protests, which have been described by critics as "politically motivated".

Last week, over 100 journalists called for the release of the British media mogul Mr Lai, who faces spending the rest of his life in prison in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, a recent Parliamentary report into Lai's case found that Mr Lai - a British citizen - had been targeted by a "litany of laws in an attempt to silence his pro-democracy voice".

His own son, Sebastien, says he cannot even return to Hong Kong after drawing attention to his father's case, telling LBC's James O'Brien that he is in prison because his paper was "pro-democracy, pro-free speech"

So who is Jimmy Lai and why does his imprisonment matter?

Who is Jimmy Lai?

Media Tycoon Jimmy Lai Appears For Bail Hearing
Media Tycoon Jimmy Lai Appears For Bail Hearing. Picture: Getty

According to his son Sebastien, Mr Lai escaped China when he was 12 years old, settling in Hong Kong.

Almost immediately, he was critical of the authorities in Hong Kong, a tradition he has upheld all of his life.

He is the founder and published of Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong's most liberal newspapers, which was shut down in 2021 by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Read More: Hong Kong court dismisses Jimmy Lai’s legal bid to fight for UK lawyer

Read More: Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai gets 14-month jail term over 2019 protest

Lai, 75, was first arrested in 2020, and is among a number of high-profile activists to be arrested in Hong Kong since the CCP introduced a new national security law in the area three years ago.

Despite repeated calls for the UK government to step in and call for Lai's release, there appears to be a reluctance for the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to do that publicly.

Mr Lai's son has condemned the UK government's "hypocrisy" on the matter.

The government says it opposes China's national security law, which has allowed for Mr Lai's persecution, but has not directly called for Mr Lai's release.

“We’ve been very disappointed - there was radio silence for a period of two years," Caoilfhionn Gallagher, who is a member of the international legal team for Mr Jimmy Lai and for his son, told LBC.

“Nothing said at all between December 2020 when he was arrested and December 2022. That’s very dissapointing.

“He’s a British man, Sebastian is of course a British man…they expect that when something like this happens, their government is their corner, but it isn’t.

“And it’s a stark contrast to how outspoken the US government has been and the European Union has been.

Why does Jimmy Lai's case matter?

Jimmy Lai's son and Barrister join James O'Brien in a plea for Mr Lai's freedom

Jimmy Lai’s future appears bleak. He has not been allowed to choose his own lawyer and faces spending the rest of his life in prison.

According to Fiona O'Brien, UK bureau director at Reporters Without Borders, Mr Lai's imprisonment and persecution should be a "huge concern" to anyone who cares about Hong Kong and press freedom.

"The repression of independent media in Hong Kong is particularly devastating when you think that Hong Kong had one of the most vibrant media environments in the region," Ms O'Brien told LBC.

"It shows China's utter disregard for human rights and the rule of law, and its determination to stamp out all criticism of its worldview."

What can be done?

Ms O'Brien said that silence from the government "has to change" and suggests that the "UK will not stand up for its citizens if doing so is not politically expedient".

"Why has it not called for the release of Jimmy Lai, who is not just a Hong Konger but a British citizen?" she continued.

"The UK government has a moral and legal obligation to call for his release, and the release of all other journalists arbitrarily detained in Hong Kong.

"If the UK government is genuinely committed to press freedom - as it claims to be - it cannot sit back silently as one of its citizens is condemned to die in jail because Beijing does not like what he published."

A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said: "We have made clear our strong objection to China’s imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, which is being used in a deliberate attempt to target and silence pro-democracy figures, including Jimmy Lai."

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