Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, owner of the Hong Kong and Taiwan newspaper Apple Daily. Pic: AP.

Apple Daily is the most visible target, but there are plenty more, writes Asia Sentinel’s John Berthelsen 

It has long been known that big business in Hong Kong, obviously worried about Big Brother over the border, has boycotted Apple Daily, the territory’s most popular newspaper, because of the rocky relationship of its owner, media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, with Beijing.

But just how much Lai has been hammered turned up this week in 900-odd files apparently hacked from his personal computer and leaked to several pro-Beijing publications. What has happened to Lai is increasingly emblematic of the pressure that a wide range of Hong Kong’s independent press is under. That pressure stems from both local and Chinese governments, oligarchic owners and thugs employed by unknown sources to beat them up.

In February, Asia Sentinel reported that the press faces slow but relentless erosion of what has long been regarded as not only the freest and most diversified press in Asia outside Japan but what has traditionally been the most important listening post on China itself. That is critical today with the Chinese government cracking down on the New York Times and Bloomberg for reporting critically on the vast riches amassed by members of the families of China’s top leadership. And, as pressure increases on the Hong Kong and international press, the need for a free press is growing.

On Saturday, House News, Hong Kong’s answer to the hugely popular US-based Huffington Post, a pro-democracy website, closed shop. Tony Tsoi, who set up House News, said in announcing its closure: “I fear. The current atmosphere of political struggle is extremely unsettling. A number of the democratic camp members are being stalked, smeared, and having some old stories dug out. A wave of white terror envelops this society, and I feel it. And, as a businessman who often travels up to the mainland, I have to admit every time I cross the border I would get jittery. Am I just being paranoid? That feeling is inexplicable to outsiders. But what unsettles me most is my family also feels this pressure, and they worry about me all the time … That breaks my heart.”

The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association has recorded several violent attacks on journalists, which were once rare in Hong Kong. One attack targeted Lai’s Next Media on June 30, 2013, when three masked men threatened distribution workers with knives and burned 26,000 copies of Apple Daily. Earlier the same month, in an attack relating to another media company, iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping was beaten by a group of unidentified baton-wielding men. The Hong Kong-based magazine is known for outspoken reporting on sensitive mainland issues. The attacks came against a backdrop of restrictive legal measures.

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