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Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, looks on as he leaves the Court of Final Appeal by prison van in Hong Kong on Feb. 1.TYRONE SIU

Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai and his staff of the shuttered Apple Daily newsroom have been awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom, the annual press freedom award of the World Association of News Publishers.

Mr. Lai, who founded Apple Daily, is in prison for his involvement in unauthorized pro-democracy protests. Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most popular Chinese-language newspapers, closed in June after authorities used a controversial national security law to arrest the editor-in-chief and four other senior executives. They also froze the company’s assets as well as Mr. Lai’s assets. Mr. Lai had already been in jail for more than seven months.

The national security law was passed in June, 2020, and critics say it severely restricts free speech and the right to protest. Later in August, under the new legislation, Mr. Lai was arrested for allegedly colluding with foreign forces. That morning, more than 200 national security officers raided Apple Daily. Mr. Lai was released on bail, but by December, 2020, he had been arrested again for his involvement in unauthorized protests. He is in prison facing six charges that could lead to a life sentence.

Mr. Lai’s son, Sebastien Lai, accepted the award on behalf of his father. He said that “journalism is at the forefront of history” and that “it records the now and informs the future. It is a check against the powerful, and the voice of the people in times of strife.”

“With Apple Daily closing in Hong Kong, and a crackdown against journalism across the region, there will be less and less people shining light in these dark corners,” Sebastien Lai said, adding “Thank you very much for this award but please keep dad, the Apple Daily newsroom in Hong Kong, and the people of Hong Kong in your thoughts as these events unfold.”

The award, presented virtually, highlights “the fears and challenges of journalists in Hong Kong, the region, and the world in the face of heightening curbs on their ability to do their jobs credibly and independently,” according to a press release from the World Association of News Publishers.

Warren Fernandez, president of the World Editors Forum, announced the award and said, “the jailing of a publisher, the arrest of an editor-in-chief and his senior colleagues, the shuttering of a newsroom and the closure of a media title – the 2021 Golden Pen award recognizes, and reflects on, all of these.”

Mr. Lai has been an outspoken critic of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong and a high-profile supporter of the pro-democracy movement, leading to him and his company becoming regular targets for the authorities, the press release said.

In 2013, a group of masked men ambushed Mr. Lai’s home, threatening workers and burning thousands of copies of the Apple Daily. A year later, anti-corruption officials raided his home over leaked documents showing he had donated millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups ahead of the 2014 Occupy Movement protests.

Mr. Lai fled China at the age of 12, the statement continued, and settled in Hong Kong. He worked his way up to lead a successful garment manufacturing empire. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he became an fervent critic of Beijing. Mr. Lai founded Next Media and in 1995 launched Apple Daily, which soon became a symbol of pro-democracy and public dissent resulting in advertising boycotts and attacks.

This past April, Apple Daily published a letter Mr. Lai sent to staff from jail: “A journalist’s responsibility [is] to uphold justice. The era is falling apart before us, and it is time for us to stand tall.”

The Golden Pen of Freedom is the World Association of News Publishers’ annual award which recognizes individuals or organizations that have made an outstanding contribution to the defence and promotion of press freedom.

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