Apple Daily case an acid test for judicial independence of Hong Kong

National security and freedom of the press are not and should not be incompatible. Indeed, the recently passed national security law upholds the latter, along with freedom of speech and publication, as enshrined in the Basic Law.
This is why yesterday’s mass police raid on the offices of Apple Daily has had a profound impact far beyond the city’s borders. The raid followed the arrest of owner Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, his two sons and a number of senior executives on suspicion of national security violations and conspiracy to defraud.
Footage of 200-odd police officers descending on the offices made confronting images. It has attracted world attention and ensured that Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and open city under the rule of law goes on trial in any subsequent court proceedings.
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The national security law had already polarised public sentiment. National security must take account of guaranteed rights and freedoms. In this case the issue of press freedom is beginning to loom large in many people’s eyes.
“The death of press freedom” may be the lament of its supporters, but there are people who hold different views. What sets this case apart is that it is seen to target a media organisation, as well as individuals.
People will have very divided views on yesterday’s operations, not least because of the timing, just after the United States imposed sanctions on key local and mainland officials. But we should not allow press freedom to be too easily conflicted with the security law until we are clear about all the facts.
This is the first high-profile case under the law. What is at stake is not just the fate of the accused or the future of a media organisation. It is also, at the same time, an acid test of our cherished judicial independence and implementation of the security law.
Therefore, though yesterday’s operation was divisive, the burden of proof now is on the police after such a high-profile raid and charges against those arrested before taking the case to court.
The public needs evidence to avoid sweeping judgment and to reach an informed conclusion. We have no reason at this stage to question the quality and independence of our court system. This is going to be a high-profile case watched carefully at home and abroad.
Notwithstanding provision in the law for trials to be held behind closed doors, it is paramount to confidence in judicial independence that any proceedings arising from the raid and arrests should be open, transparent and fair.
This newspaper, naturally, stands for freedom of the press, publication and speech, but also supports the need to abide by the law. That is why we also stand for judicial independence and open justice.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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