June has been a busy month for media mogul Jimmy Lai. The chairman of Next Media, who runs Apple Daily and Next Magazine in Hong Kong and Taiwan, will celebrate the paper’s 19th anniversary on Friday. On Monday, the group said its finances are on the mend.
Lai is particularly busy with a morning radio show on the internet launched on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Every year on this day, Lai would rally public support for democracy, often ruffling feathers in Hong Kong and Beijing, ahead of the customary July 1 march.
His publication has been a headache for the Hong Kong government for its highly critical attitude toward almost everything from unpopular ministers to the controversial new town development plan for northeast New Territories.
After all, the paper made its name for forcing former financial secretary Antony Leung into standing down for buying a Lexus ahead of his budget speech, and for helping drive his boss Tung Chee-hwa from office.
All had been going well for the newspaper until today when its servers were hacked, causing many readers (including yours truly) to endure an unusually quiet morning.
Today Apple Daily splashed a familiar fare: a call to action by the legal sector to oppose a white paper on Beijing’s Hong Kong policy released last week. And for a touch of drama, people are being urged to turn out in black.
It was the seventh cover story on a related subject in the past two weeks, peppered with familiar key words such as “June 4th”, “universal suffrage” and “Occupy Central”.
Presumably, Beijing is not amused, but there’s more to come.
This week, Mark Simon, Jimmy Lai’s right-hand man and commercial director of Next Media, told the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal that two of Hong Kong’s three note-issuing banks – except Bank of China (Hong Kong) — have boycotted the publication.
Earlier this year HSBC and Standard Chartered were reported to have been asked not to advertise in Apple Daily.
The story was linked to a rumour that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying turned down an invitation by Standard Chartered to a function because he was unhappy about the bank’s relationship with Apple.
It triggered a series of heated discussions on media censorship and cost the jobs of some high-profile media commentators.
The boycott is still on. “We have had long relationships with these guys [HSBC and Stanchart], and then it fell apart,” Simon was quoted as saying.
He also told the Times that HSBC and Standard Chartered don’t have to do as they’re told. Both banks said the advertising pullout from Apple Daily was a commercial decision.
The New York Times was moved to make its own comment. It said the decision “showed the increasing power of the Chinese government to influence the behavior of not only its state-owned companies but also global multinationals, using the strength of its huge domestic market as a tool”.
And it lamented the “hard-nosed tactics” China’s central government will take to muzzle the relatively free news media in Hong Kong, the former British colony that was able to keep a high degree of autonomy and civil liberties as part of the terms for its return to China in 1997.
In its latest financial statement, Next Media said revenue from Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan fell 11 per cent to HK$806 million, largely because of a 16.1 percent drop in advertising income to HK$500.6 million.
Next Media did not break down the country revenue nor explain the decline except to point out its editorial position.
“The high calibre of Apple Daily’s content, together with its fearless investigation and reporting of the facts concerning a broad range of issues that interest the public, have earned it the strong loyalty of its quality readership and enabled it to retain its top market position in terms of the average number of people who read it every day.”
So Jimmy Lai is financially and politically motivated to get up early every day this month, a sensitive time in the Chinese calendar.
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