Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai had ‘final say’ over editorial direction at Apple Daily newspaper, court hears

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Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai had ‘final say’ over editorial direction at Apple Daily newspaper, court hears

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai had the “final say” over the editorial direction of Apple Daily, a publisher of the pro-democracy tabloid that closed in 2021 has testified during Lai’s national security trial.

Jimmy Lai. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chan Pui-man, the former associate publisher of Apple Daily who is testifying against her former employer for the prosecution, told the court on Thursday that in a series of “lunch-box meetings” with senior executives held since 2019, Lai would make the ultimate decision regarding the paper’s editorial direction. That included decisions related to its coverage on the pro-democracy protests and unrest that year and the ensuring Covid-19 pandemic.

“Because Mr Lai is a man who holds on to his opinions and, at times, is quite bossy, at the end of the day he had the final say,” she said in Cantonese on the 35th day of the trial, which is scheduled to last 80 days.

Chan also disagreed with Robert Pang, Lai’s lead defence lawyer, who said that Lai was primarily focused on operations and the paper’s content in a “general” manner during such meetings.

Apple Daily's ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.
Apple Daily’s ex-associate publisher Chan Pui-man. Photo: Kenny Huang/Studio Incendo.

“The lunchbox meetings that I attended were only attended by editorial staff, and it’s difficult to separate matters. When he talked about the paper’s improvement, inevitably he would touch on how to cover the news,” she said.

Pang argued that Lai had not given staff “specific directions” about what to report on.

“It was relatively rare that he talked about what not to report,” Chan said. “But let’s say in 2019, it had to be about the anti-extradition protests, and then it had to be about the pandemic… during that period, when he talked about improving the paper, he had to touch on them,” she continued.

“For example, if he asked [us] to interview protesters, he wouldn’t mention a specific person. Instead he would give a direction, that he wanted to learn more about [the protesters’] thoughts.”

Legal representative of Jimmy Lai outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 2, 2024. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Legal representatives of Jimmy Lai outside the West Kowloon Law Courts Building on February 2, 2024. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Lai, 76, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of conspiring to collude with foreign forces under the security law and one count of conspiring to publish “seditious” materials under colonial-era legislation.

His defence team continued their cross-examination of Chan on Thursday at the West Kowloon Law Courts Building. They earlier contended that staff at Apple Daily enjoyed editorial independence from Lai, who would make suggestions instead of give directions on editorial affairs.

Lunch box meetings

Pang drew the court’s attention to a number of screenshots from workplace communication platform Slack, which suggested that Lai had discussed the agenda of the lunch box meetings with staff.

In a message dated June 18, 2019, Lai asked his employees to raise thoughts and comments on how to make Apple Daily better resemble a “news magazine.”

Pang also pointed to messages sent by Cheung Kim-hung, the former CEO of Apple Daily’s parent company Next Digital, and Chan, in which they appeared to have summarised key takeaways of the meetings.

Apple Daily's final edition dated June 24. 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.
Apple Daily’s final edition dated June 24. 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Pang described the messages as making “general points on how to improve the newspaper” and follow-up on suggestions.

But Chan said Lai would also comment on news angles during the meetings.

“For example, Mr Lai would suggest names for writing [opinion pieces], or, as I have testified, he had intended for the China news desk to increase its coverage on the cover-up of [Covid] in the mainland, as well as the people who raised such concerns,” she said.

“People like Li Wenliang?” Pang asked, referring to the mainland Chinese doctor who was the whistle-blower of the pandemic. Chan agreed.

Pang said the origin of the pandemic was “particularly news-worthy” and was the focus of global news media, which Chan also agreed with before the court adjourned.

See also: Hong Kong paper Apple Daily played up Beijing Covid cover-up fears, court hears in Jimmy Lai’s national security trial

Chan is one of six senior Apple Daily employees who pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces in November 2022. They will be sentenced after Lai’s trial.

Prosecutors allege that Lai used Apple Daily to instigate hatred against authorities and call for foreign sanctions on mainland Chinese and Hong Kong officials in the wake of the Beijing-imposed national security law, which criminalised secession, subversion, foreign collusion and terrorism.

A conviction could see him spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The trial continues on Friday with the defence expected to conclude their questioning of Chan.

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