Six former staff of a Hong Kong newspaper that was forced to close under the Chinese territory’s sweeping national security law have pleaded guilty to conspiring to collude with foreign forces.
The former Apple Daily employees on Tuesday admitted to conspiring to ask a foreign country or organisation to sanction “or engage in other hostile activities” against Hong Kong and China after prosecutors agreed to drop sedition charges.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The four senior editors and two executives pleaded guilty to conspiring with Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who is facing a separate national security trial next month, in the foreign collusion.
Publisher Cheung Kim-hung, associated publisher Chan Pui-man, editor-in-chief Ryan Law, executive Editor-in-Chief Lam Man-chung, and editorial writers Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee face a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.
The six, which were accused of using Apple Daily articles to solicit foreign sanctions against China, are due to be sentenced after the conclusion of Lai’s trial on national security and sedition charges.
The convictions are likely to add to fears for press freedom in the former British colony, which has plummeted from 18th to 148th in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Apple Daily, a pro-democracy tabloid known for its vigorous criticism of Beijing, was forced to close in June last year after authorities froze its bank accounts and arrested senior executives and editorial staff.
Several other pro-democracy media outlets, including Stand News, which was raided by police last December, have been forced to close under the national security law, which Beijing introduced following massive, and at times violent, pro-democracy protests in 2019.
While Hong Kong remains nominally semi-autonomous from Beijing and claims to protect basic rights and freedoms under a principle known as “one country, two systems”, a sweeping crackdown on dissent since the law’s introduction has practically wiped out the city’s once vibrant political opposition and civil society.
The legislation, which has been widely criticised by press freedom and human rights groups, criminalises vaguely-defined offences of succession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.
Lai, a mainland Chinese refugee who made his fortune in garments before launching Apple Daily in 1995, is set to go on trial on December 1.
The 74-year-old tycoon and three companies that prosecutors say were involved in the conspiracy have pleaded not guilty.