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Day 18: January 29, 2024

Ming Pao: Jimmy Lai Trial | Defense Raises the Question Whether Senior Executives of “Apple Daily” Can Say No to Lai, Cheung Kim-hung says, “We Had No Choice” (17:05)

The Trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai, founder of Next Digital, and three associated companies linked to Apple Daily, continued today. They face the charges of conspiring to collude with foreign forces. Former Apple Daily publisher, Cheung Kim-hung, has begun to be cross-examined by the defense. The defense questioned whether the values and editorial direction of the Apple Daily’s top management inherently align with those of Jimmy Lai, asserting that there is no need for direct instructions from Lai, as the management can independently choose to say “no” to the boss. Cheung Kim-hung disagreed with this assertion, stating, “Regarding Lai’s editorial policy, he instructed me to do it, and I had no choice.”

Cheung Kim-hung was being questioned by defense senior counsel Rober Pang Yiu-hung. Cheung first outlined his values, expressing agreement with opposing authoritarianism, supporting democracy and press freedom, and believing that the media serves as the fourth estate to scrutinize the government. He indicated that his values align with those of Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily’s deputy chief editor Chan Pui-man, chief editor Ryan Law Wai-kwong, and English version executive editor Fung Wai-kong but was uncertain about alignment with the chief writer Yeung Ching-kee. Judge Alex Lee expressed concern that the defense’s continuous questions were about Cheung’s values, which is different from editorial policy. Lee gave an example where Lai requested Apple Daily not to report positive news about China, “This is not a value; it’s a perspective, even a bias.”

The defense subsequently argued that the Apple Daily’s management shares values with Jimmy Lai, and Lai “fundamentally doesn’t need to issue reporting directions because everyone knows.” Cheung Kim-hung refuted this claim, stating that Lai’s editorial instructions involve more than one set of values, “It’s not just about freedom, democracy, and freedom of speech. It’s about how to run an entire newspaper,” providing examples such as Lai instructing the newspaper to urge citizens to protest against the extradition bill. Lai would personally participate in the protests, and Apple Daily would communicate with Lai’s secretary to arrange an interview with Lai during the demonstration. Lai would then instruct how to report the news, continuously drafting columns urging readers to take to the streets in his “Success and Failure with a Laugh” column. Cheung concluded, “I don’t believe that if Lai did not have such a clear editorial instruction, our team, even if we think there should be freedom of speech and rule of law, would do these things.”

The defense continued to inquire whether both Apple Daily and Next Digital operated strictly based on the policy of “editorial independence.” Referring to the “Editorial Charter” of Apple Daily, the defense suggested that, according to this, Cheung could actually “say no” to the boss. Cheung disagreed, describing that the management had independent “ideas” regarding editorial decisions, but “Lai’s editorial policy, he instructed us to do it, and we have no choice.” As the publisher, he could only “supervise them according to Lai’s editorial policy.” Cheung also gave an example, mentioning that the senior management once discussed in a group chat without Lai about whether to add the Apple Daily logo to the July 1st protest poster. He intended to “say no” if the majority opposed it but clarified that “he instructed us to do it, and we had no choice.” Consequently, he did not convey the opinions of senior management to Lai.

Regarding the defense’s assertion that Jimmy Lai rarely participated in Apple Daily’s editorial affairs from 2014 to 2018 and intended to retire, only returning due to Apple Daily’s losses, Cheung stated that Lai had “retired many times” but couldn’t recall why Lai actively dealt with Apple Daily’s business. He also recalled Lai’s attempt to sell Next Magazine, which was unsuccessful. At that time, Apple Daily employees were demoralized, fearing, “would he sell Apple Daily after selling Next Magazine?”

Ming Pao Live text updates:

【16:35】Court adjourned.

【16:10】The defense pointed out that Apple Daily has always encouraged citizens to take to the streets. Cheung Kim-hung disagreed, stating, “Because there was a significant change in 2014, and I, as the editor-in-chief, saw that.” He explained that at that time, it wasn’t as simple as publishing a page in the newspaper urging people to go to the streets and fight for universal suffrage. Instead, it involved a whole half-year, a significant campaign initiated by Lai, namely the promotion of the June 22nd referendum. Cheung recounted Lai’s initial instruction to use the exterior walls of buildings for promoting the referendum and later arranging a light truck as an art installation to publicize opposition to the white paper on implementing “One Country, Two Systems” by the central government. However, as using exterior walls and trucks was beyond Cheung’s capabilities, “Lai eventually handed it over to Mark Simon (Jimmy Lai’s assistant) to handle.”

Cheung continued, “So, I think in the situation of 2014, following Lai’s participation in Occupy Central and then being taken away by the police at the scene, I think the transformation of Apple Daily in 2014 was significant,” adding that it wasn’t like urging people to attend candlelight vigils or demonstrations every June 4th or July 1st.

【16:00】The defense questioned whether every “lunchbox meeting” was related to the news department. Cheung Kim-hung agreed, stating that since different departments took turns participating in “lunchbox meetings,” these meetings did not necessarily revolve around Apple Daily newspaper and its online version. The defense asked if, when the subject of a “lunchbox meeting” was the Travel and Gourmet section staff, it would involve “editorial instructions.” Cheung stated, “Possibly yes, Lai once asked them to interview yellow leaning restaurants.”

【15:25】Cheung Kim-hung continued, mentioning that during the “lunchbox meetings,” communication shifted to a Slack chat group. Lai would instruct Cheung to record the main points of the discussions after the meetings. The defense asked if these recorded main points involved specific “editorial instructions.” Cheung mentioned, “To some extent, they would be recorded. If there were indeed some directional instructions, they might not necessarily be recorded.”

The defense showed the “Key Points and Follow-ups of the Lunchbox Meeting” record from January 13, 2020, stating that it covered general matters and page design, without specific “editorial instructions.” Cheung explained that because the recording didn’t need to be detailed, certain thoughts, like Lai’s belief that they should cover the cases of the young people sacrificing themselves in the protests against the extradition bill, might not be detailed in the recorded key points. However, Cheung added that Lai did not give “editorial instructions” at every “lunchbox meeting.”

【15:15】The defense pointed out that on September 28, 2018, Lai sent a message to Cheung regarding the “lunchbox meeting,” suggesting, “If you think eight people are too few, why not increase it to ten?” Cheung replied, saying, ” got it, Boss. Let’s try with ten first, and then review.” The defense suggested that this indicates Lai did not make decisions on everything, to which Cheung responded, “I don’t agree with that,” emphasizing, “He said we could increase it to ten, meaning he wanted ten, so I said ‘got it.’”

The defense also mentioned another message sent by Lai, stating, “Middle-level employees from different departments having meals together, some people may not speak sincerely with others from different departments present.” The defense asked whether this implied that Lai wanted employees to be frank during the meetings, pointing out that the purpose of the “lunchbox meetings” was not to give instructions but to “hear the opinions of the employees.” Cheung disagreed, stating that the message referred to “department-level meetings,” originating from “the ICT department where a group of middle-level employees collectively resigned, so Lai wanted to find them, have a meal with the department’s middle-level employees, and hear their opinions,” adding that the “lunchbox meetings” were well conducted, and Lai did not want to replace the original “lunchbox meetings” with this approach.

【14:50】The defense asked whether the “lunchbox meetings” had taken on the questions within the group for discussion. Cheung explained that before the “lunchbox meetings” started, there would be half an hour for having meals, during which “Lai would talk, perhaps discuss the current situation or share some thoughts.” After that, they would address the questions within the group one by one and provide instructions to relevant colleagues. The defense further pointed out that the topics discussed during the “lunchbox meetings” could be very ordinary, such as the quality of the cafeteria food. Cheung mentioned, “These kinds of questions are quite rare,” adding, “I won’t say there are none, but they are very infrequent.” The defense suggested that the “lunchbox meetings” rarely delved into editorial matters, but Cheung disagreed.

【14:32】The afternoon session continued with discussions about the internal “lunchbox meetings” at Apple Daily. The defense claimed that Lai tried to shift the focus of Apple Daily from the newspaper to the digital version during the onset of the Jimmy Lai case. Cheung disagreed, stating that Apple Daily had started developing its web version in the early years, with daily click rates exceeding 40 to 50 million times between 2013 and 2014. The defense suggested that Lai wanted to develop both the newspaper and the digital version simultaneously, leading to multiple “lunchbox meetings.” Cheung did not agree with the defense’s claims.

【12:57】Court recess.

【12:40】The defense claimed that Jimmy Lai was rarely involved in the editorial affairs of Apple Daily from 2014 to 2018, intending to retire. It was only because Apple Daily incurred losses that he resumed handling Next Digital affairs. Cheung Kim-hung disagreed, stating that Lai had “retired many times” and couldn’t remember why Lai actively managed Apple Daily’s business, including operations and daily editorial decisions. Cheung recalled that Lai had once planned to sell Next Magazine but failed. At that time, the morale of Apple Daily employees was low, and there were concerns about whether Lai would sell Apple Daily after selling Next Magazine.

Cheung Kim-hung also mentioned that during interviews, Lai reiterated that he would not sell Apple Daily and stated, “Not until there is universal suffrage in Hong Kong will I sell it.” Cheung believed that Lai felt his mission was to fight for universal suffrage.

【12:25】The defense mentioned that senior management discussed whether the July 1st protest posters should include the Apple Daily logo in the “National Security Law Contingency Committee.” Each person shared their opinions. Cheung Kim-hung stated that since Lai was not in the group, he said in the group, “If the majority opposes it, I can only say no to him (Lai)” but he meant that he can only try to talk to him. The defense asked if this meant that everyone’s opinion was equally important, not just Lai’s opinion. Cheung emphasized that it didn’t mean that and, in the end, he did not convey the opinions of senior management to Lai. Cheung believed that Lai did not know that he had set up the group.

The defense continued to ask whether both Apple Daily and Next Digital strictly operated according to the policy of “editorial independence.” Cheung responded that there were independent “ideas” regarding editorial decisions but stressed that “Lai’s editorial policy, he instructs us to do it, and we have no choice.” As the publisher, his role was to “supervise them according to Lai’s editorial policy.”

【11:49】Court in session. The defense continued questioning, mentioning that if someone is pro-government, they might choose to buy Wen Wei Po or Ta Kung Pao. Cheung Kim-hung responded, saying, “I don’t completely agree with that.” He used Apple Daily as an example, stating that apart from local news, it also covers entertainment, horse racing, finance, supplements, and other sections. Readers might buy the newspaper for the sections they like, such as the horse racing section. At the same time, he agreed that Apple Daily readers tend to prefer content that is more critical. Judge Alex Lee asked whether it means people only read what they want to read rather than trying to understand the truth. Cheung stated that he couldn’t be sure, but some people might buy Apple Daily due to their stance, as “many people know that Apple Daily is Mr. Lai’s newspaper.”

The defense then listed some messages where Lai mentioned:

“Let’s try to have a lecture every night starting tonight, free for upgraded members to attend, as a promotion until December when they start paying through the app. Do it well, and there will be a significant word of mouth. It’s a very good way to gain membership. Let’s talk at the company meeting tomorrow. Thank you. Lai.”

The defense pointed out that Lai seldom gave instructions in a commanding tone. Cheung believed it was just Lai’s “more polite way” of expressing himself, understanding it as a request for action. He and other senior executives generally followed Lai’s direction unless “it was impossible.”

【11:14】Court recess. Before the break, the defense questioned that, based on the “Editorial Charter” of Apple Daily, which listed editorial policies and organizational operations, Cheung could have “say no” to the boss. But Cheung disagreed, saying, “I don’t agree with that.” The defense pointed out that, as mentioned earlier in Cheung’s testimony, each newspaper has different editorial instructions, such as The New York Times being more liberal than The Wall Street Journal. Cheung mentioned it depends on how one defines “liberal” and “conservative.” However, he agreed that The Guardian is more liberal than The Daily Telegraph, Ming Pao is more pro-government than Apple Daily, and newspapers like Sing Tao and Ta Kung Pao are more conservative, stating that having a stance is not a problem.

【10:58】The defense showed a third message indicating that Jimmy Lai sent a message to Cheung Kim-hung containing his 25th-anniversary message for Apple Daily. Cheung replied, “Boss, Apple Daily belongs to the people of Hong Kong, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Lai replied, “Keep going!” The defense argued that the message clearly reflected Cheung’s agreement with Lai’s sentiment. Cheung explained that he rarely expressed dissent with Lai at that time and was merely responding to Lai. The defense continued, stating that Lai never issued editorial instructions because Cheung and other Apple Daily executives shared the same editorial direction. Cheung countered, “Even if there is a set of values, it doesn’t mean Lai didn’t give instructions. Lai definitely gave instructions.”

Judge Alex Lee at this point expressed concern about the defense repeatedly asking about Cheung’s values. Values and editorial instructions are different. For example, Lai once instructed Apple Daily not to report positive news about China. “This is not a value; this is a perspective, even bias.” He asked the defense to clarify, and Judge Esther Toh also agreed that the questioning was inappropriate.

The defense changed their approach, asking whether Lai “basically didn’t need to give direction for reporting because everyone knew.” Cheung Kim-hung also disagreed, stating that Lai’s editorial instructions were not just a set of values. For example, Lai instructed them to urge citizens to protest against the extradition bill, “It’s not purely about freedom, democracy, freedom of speech; it’s about how the entire newspaper, the whole newspaper, should operate.” Lai would personally participate in the protests, Apple Daily would communicate with Lai’s secretary to arrange where to interview Lai, and Lai would then instruct how to report the news. He would also continuously write in his “Success and Failure with a Laughter” column urging readers to take to the streets. “I don’t believe that if Lai didn’t have such clear editorial instructions, we, this group of people, even if we think there should be freedom of speech and the rule of law, would do these things.”

【10:30】The defense presented a WhatsApp conversation between Jimmy Lai and Cheung Kim-hung. Cheung mentioned to Lai about subscriptions to Apple Daily, proposing to launch an initiative where pro-democracy district councilors would help resolve payment difficulties. Lai expressed hesitation, stating that as a profit-making organization, “it might not be appropriate for us to initiate it,” but said, “if you (Cheung) feel there is no problem, go ahead.” Cheung explained that if Lai felt his suggestion was inappropriate, he would directly say, “Don’t do it.” Based on his years of experience with Lai, he felt that Lai responded positively to his suggestions.

Another message showed a conversation between Cheung and Chan Pui-man, where Cheung mentioned that former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pressured Apple Daily through advertisers, causing them to drop advertisements. He emphasized that Apple Daily would not compromise on defending core values such as freedom of speech. The defense pointed out that as Chan’s superior, Cheung promised that Apple Daily would not compromise on defending Hong Kong values, and Cheung agreed.

【10:07】Court in session. Former Publisher of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, began to be questioned by the defense’s senior counsel, Robert Pang. Cheung acknowledged that he has known Jimmy Lai for many years and has worked in various media organizations, making him a seasoned media professional. He also agreed that he opposes authoritarianism, supports democracy and press freedom, and believes that the media serves as the fourth estate to monitor the government. His values align with those of Jimmy Lai, Deputy Chief Editor Chan Pui-man, Chief Editor Ryan Law Wai-kwong, and Executive Editor of the English version Fung Wai-kwong. Regarding Chief Writer Yeung Ching-kee, he was uncertain whether their values were consistent.

As for the values of former Apple Daily staff, Cheung also refrained from making definitive statements, stating that there were many reporters and editors at Apple Daily, and “many might be just doing it for a job.” However, he acknowledged that they “know that Lai has these values, and they will definitely cooperate because it is their job, but whether they really have this belief, I dare not speak for them.”

Ming Pao Reporters Celine Tam, Tong Bik-yu, Yeung Ji-kyun

Ming Pao

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