On May 14, Hong Kong city’s security bureau said it hadfrozen all Next Digital shares held by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, as well as assets in the local bank accounts of three companies owned by him.The 72-year-old media tycoon currently holds 71.26 percent of Next Digital shares, which is valued at over HK$343 million (US$44 million).
The move was intended to prevent “offencerelated property” from being removed from Hong Kong, the security bureau said in a statement. It cited that Lai has been charged with colluding with foreign forces under the national security law and conspiring to assist a suspect in fleeing Hong Kong.
The national security charges, punishable by life imprisonment, against Lai are reportedly related to his urging of foreign countries and organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong in response to the imposition of China’s national security law.
The property freeze came hours after the Taiwan edition of Apple Daily, published by Next Digital, announced that it would cease its print edition starting May 18, citing long-term profit losses. It is not yet known if the two events are directly related. However, it casts a shadow over the fate of Next Digital and its flagship newspaper, the Hong Kong edition of Apple Daily, which has long been critical of authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, said that Apple Daily in Hong Kongand Next Digital had not been financially or operationally impacted by the government freeze.
He reportedly said during a meeting with employees in Hong Kong on May 11 that the group will not close down Apple Daily, while the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Chan Pui-man wrote via Facebook on May 14 that the newspaper will be published “as usual tomorrow”.
Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison on April 16 for “unauthorised assemblies” during the pro-democracy protest movement that roiled the city in 2019. He is still facing other charges, including fraud and collusion with foreign forces.
The IFJ said: “The charges and legal actions against Lai show that the Hong Kong government has utilised the national security law to suppress freedom of expression in the city rather than maintaining social order as it previously claimed. The IFJ calls on the dropping of all charges against Lai and his immediate release.”