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Day 20: January 31, 2024

The Witness: Real-time Updates | Day 20 of Jimmy Lai’s Trial – A video clip shows Lai urging employees to work with a conscience, Cheung reiterates that Apple Daily operates according to Lai’s guidance

Founder of Next Digital Jimmy Lai and three related companies of Apple Daily are charged with “conspiring to collude with foreign forces.” The trial entered its 20th day at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts (temporarily designated as the High Court) on Wednesday. The prosecution’s “accomplice witness,” former Executive Director of Next Digital, Cheung Kim-hung, underwent the third day of cross-examination by the defense.

In court, a video clip of Jimmy Lai’s speech during the 25th-anniversary celebration of Apple Daily on June 18, 2020, was played. In the video, Lai mentioned that after the imposition of National Security Law, the staff should persist, stating, ” I only ask for one thing… Hold on to your conscience, your conscience towards society. I won’t tell you how to do it… Apple Daily has come this far today is all because of you,” accompanied by laughter and applause.

The defense argued that Lai meant Apple Daily operated through the collaboration of employees and the core values held by journalists and editors. Cheung disagreed, stating, “Lai did say this, but it seems like he said it jokingly,” reiterating that Apple Daily was “created under Lai’s leadership and guidance.”

The case is being heard by Judges Esther Toh Lye-ping, Susana Maria D’Almada Remedios, and Alex Lee Wang-tang, appointed under the National Security Law. The prosecution is represented by Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Chau Tin-hang, Assistant Director of Public Prosecutions Ivan Cheung, and Senior Public Prosecutor Crystal Chan Wing-sum. Jimmy Lai is represented by Senior Counsel Robert Pang Yiu-hung, Counsel Steven Kwan, and New Zealand barrister Marc Corlett with Hong Kong practicing qualifications.

12: 58 Court adjourned

The trial will continue tomorrow afternoon.

12:20 The defense alleges that Cheung Kin-hong intends to seek a lenient sentence by shifting the blame onto Jimmy Lai, but Cheung disagrees.

The defense pointed out that Cheung Kin-hong was arrested on June 17, 2021, charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, appeared in court on June 19, and has been in custody since then; Cheung confirmed this. The defense referred to a statement made by Cheung during his bail application in the High Court, in which he stated, “Each of the editorial department and senior management of Apple Daily worked independently of each other.”

The defense asked if senior management included Cheung and Lai, to which Cheung replied, “It includes me, but not Lai.” The defense further inquired about the editorial department, including Chan Pui-man, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, and Yeung Ching-kee, and Cheung agreed, stating that he worked independently from them.

The defense pointed out discrepancies between Cheung’s earlier statement and his testimony in court saying “I was not in any way involved in, as the Prosecution contended, setting the editorial policies and practices of Apple Daily.”Cheung disagreed with the defense’s assertion that he was not involved in setting editorial policies and practices at Apple Daily. “I wasn’t responsible for setting the policies.”

The defense further pointed out that saying Jimmy Lai gave editorial instructions contradicts Cheung Kim-hung’s sworn statement, “the Next Digital Group at all material times strictly adhered to the principle of editorial independence.”

Cheung explained, “This principle, between me and Chow Tat-kuen, our management would not interfere with editorial policies. We are talking about the firewall within the media,” indicating that they would not let commercial operations, such as advertising or economic reasons, influence editorial policies. When questioned by Judge Alex Lee about why Lai was not considered part of the management, Cheung stated, “Because he is the boss, not part of our senior management, but the owner of the entire business. He owns 70% of the business, and the entire business belongs to him.”

Under questioning, Cheung reiterated the distinction between formulating editorial policies and implementing them, agreeing that he was involved in the latter but disagreeing with using Apple Daily to request foreign organizations or individuals to sanction China and Hong Kong.

Regarding Cheung’s statement in the sworn document that “I was never asked to nor did I ever approve or review any of the articles or video published in Apple Daily,” the defense questioned how Cheung could implement editorial policies without reviewing articles. Cheung explained, “Because I don’t review every piece of content before it goes to print; I let it go out first,” including newspapers and online content.

Judge Alex Lee inquired about how Cheung ensured the implementation of editorial policies if he did not review articles. Cheung responded, “after they are published, I will review,” expressing confidence in senior staff members such as Chan Pui-man, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, Lam Man-chung, and Yeung Ching-kee, who have worked for the company for over 20 years, stating, “I had confidence in their ability to execute.”

Judge Esther Toh also asked about the meaning of “implementing editorial policies.” Cheung explained that he would convey Lai’s editorial policies to other senior staff members, monitor their execution of Lai’s policies, and review published articles and newspapers. He mentioned that if Lai noticed any issues, they would discuss them with him or senior management.

The defense pointed out discrepancies between Cheung’s sworn statement and his court testimony, suggesting that he aimed to incriminate Lai to receive a lighter sentence. Cheung categorically denied this.

11:56 – Cheung claims that after the National Security Law, he sought advice on whether Apple Daily should cease operations. Lai expressed caution, telling him they should “do as much as possible until someone stopped us.”

The defense continued presenting messages from the “Response Team.” Ryan Law Wai-kwong mentioned, “Starting today, don’t use ‘Wuhan pneumonia.’ Old tags, I think we can deal with them later.” Cheung Kim-hung texted, “regarding this Wuhan pneumonia pandemic, we are just not using tags in every article anymore. It doesn’t mean we won’t report on COVID-19. As for the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre, of course we will report on it with our conscience. We will discuss the June 4th tag.”

Cheung Kim-hung further stated in the group, “If we can do the interviews, we do the interviews. If we can unmask (the wrongdoings, scandals), we do it. Reporting truthfully with a conscience… The situation is different today, and everyone understands the importance of preserving a voice.”

The defense questioned Cheung about his words “the situation is different now” and asked how things had changed after the implementation of the National Security Law. Cheung explained that after the National Security Law had been in effect for more than half a year, the situation became increasingly challenging for Apple Daily. Government officials suggested the enactment of fake news legislation, indicating that Apple Daily was a target for investigation. Rumors circulated about Apple Daily’s future, raising concerns within the company, which led to the employee meeting in May 2021.

He recalled visiting Lai at the end of April 2021 and discussing the situation at Apple Daily with colleagues’ concerns. During that time, columnist Chip Tsao coincidentally wrote an article suggesting whether Apple Daily should consider closing down due to the prevailing circumstances. Tsao suggested that “Apple Daily should consider closing down, saying that considering the current circumstances, Apple Daily has been operating for many years, and no one will blame Apple Daily.”

Cheung sought Lai’s advice on this matter, stating, “There are many such suggestions from outside, and even Chip Tsao has said the same. Lai’s response at that time was, ‘Why voluntarily shut it down? Instead, operate cautiously under the circumstances and continue to do so until the end, be careful and prudent.'”

11:22 Small Break

11:04 Cheung confirms high-level discussions at Apple Daily after the enactment of the National Security Law. Discussions involved the choice of words in reporting and whether certain articles should be taken down.

In court, the defense presented a message from Cheung Kim-hung to Chan Pui-man, stating that two seminars had been arranged on July 14, 2020, where senior criminal barristers would explain the National Security Law. Additionally, the defense presented a message from Cheung Kim-hung to Chan Pui-man forwarding a message from Mark Simon: “Cheung, we found that this article has been searched quite a bit recently. Should it be taken down? Ten steps to lam chau. This is Hong Kong’s destiny. Benny Tai.”

Cheung Kim-hung continued, saying, “Man, Wai-kwong, asked Rosa, and Rosa suggested taking down this article.” The defense claimed that Mark Simon was concerned about Benny Tai’s article still being on the Apple Daily website, inquiring whether it should be taken down, and eventually, Cheung Kim-hung agreed.

The defense also presented message records from the “Response Team,” where Cheung Kim-hung stated, “if anyone has opinions on editorial commentary. Let’s discuss together. Thank you.” Chan Pui-man relayed a question from a colleague in the political section, “Currently, we mostly use ‘castrated elections.’ Should we change to ‘improve’ in the future, but use quotation marks?” Cheung Kim-hung said, “Already handed over to Wai-kwong for research.”

Lau Wai-kwong wrote, “everyone, I withdrew the tag ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ used yesterday. Starting today, temporarily not using it. Replace it with tags like ‘latest epidemic,’ ‘variant virus,’ ‘community outbreak,’ ‘invisible transmission.’ For the words on the mini-site, I have asked Nick for assistance. Thank you.” Nick said, “I spoke to ICT. Thanks.”

Judge Alex Lee inquired whether the mentioned group chat excluded Jimmy Lai. Cheung indicated that Lai had been remanded since December 2020, and the “Response Team” was established in April 2021. When asked further by judge Alex Lee if it was due to Lai’s arrest that he wasn’t in other groups like the “Sensitive Advertising Group,” Cheung disagreed, stating that other groups also did not include Lai and mentioned that some groups were established before but did not include Lai.

The defense claimed that Lai’s exclusion from these groups was because editorial decisions were delegated to editors, and Lai was not directly involved. Cheung disagreed with this assertion.

10:35 Lai had previously messaged Cheung about the National Security Law, saying “No rash actions allowed”

The defense presented a message sent by Lai to Cheung at 7:45 am on July 1, 2020, which read, “Kim-hung, after reading the details of the National Security Law, I was shocked… First, we need to think carefully about strategies to deal with it. No rash actions allowed.” Cheung mentioned that he was unclear about what strategies Lai was referring to and the meaning of “no rash actions.” Judge Alex Lee asked if Lai’s statement “no rash actions” meant avoiding breaking the law, and Cheung confirmed, saying, “Yes, he said to be careful.”

The defense pointed out that editors became more cautious after the implementation of the National Security Law, and Cheung responded, “Yes, because we didn’t know where the red line was.” The defense mentioned that the Apple Daily leadership at that time not only established a “National Security Law Response Committee” but also had a “Sensitive Advertisement Group” and a “Response Team.” Cheung stated that he didn’t remember but agreed that it was related to working within the red lines.

The defense brought up the “National Security Law Response Committee,” asking if the Apple Daily leadership discussed ways to avoid violating the National Security Law. Cheung mentioned that it was one of the purposes, especially concerning the entire newspaper’s operations after the implementation of the National Security Law, addressing concerns from reporters and potential resignations. Therefore, the management set up groups to handle these concerns, citing it as an essential reason.

10:15 Jimmy Lai tells employees, “Apple Daily has come this far today is all because of you”
Cheung: “It seems like Lai is saying it jokingly”

Defense senior counsel Robert Pang continued to question Cheung Kim-hung, playing a video clip in court of Jimmy Lai’s speech during the 25th-anniversary celebration of Apple Daily on June 18, 2020. In the footage, Lai stood in front of an Apple-shaped cake, with Cheung Chi-wai and Cheung Kim-hung on either side. Lai mentioned the challenges faced by Apple Daily, prompting laughter from the audience, and said, “Either they say we are sensational or bloody, or they block our advertisements, or they attack us.”

Lai continued in the clip, “Now with the National Security Law in place, I really don’t know what to do… So it’s up to you to continue to persist. I only ask for one thing… Hold on to your conscience, your conscience towards society. I won’t tell you how to do it… What Apple Daily has achieved today is because of you,” followed by more laughter and applause. “It has nothing to do with me… I appreciate very much what you have achieved today… Keep up the effort.”

The defense pointed out that the phrase “continue to persist” was spoken by Cheung and replayed the segment; Cheung confirmed. The defense asked if Lai’s statement “I won’t tell you how to do it” is indeed accurate; Cheung disagreed. The defense inquired if the statement “What Apple Daily has achieved today is because of you” refers to the core values and operation methods held by reporters and editors. Cheung stated he is uncertain of Lai’s intentions and cannot see specific values.

Cheung emphasized that Lai appeared to be speaking in a joking manner. Judge Alex Lee asked if, even if Lai was joking, the statement “What Apple Daily has achieved until today is because of you” still implies that the achievements are a result of the cooperation of Apple Daily staff. Cheung agreed, but stated that “it was the result of Lai’s leadership and guidance.” Cheung also confirms that he applauded during that moment.

10:09 Court in session

09:59 Jimmy Lai enters the courtroom
Jimmy Lai entered the courtroom, provided instructions to the defense counsel, and put on headphones.

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