This column expresses the views of Gene Policinski, senior fellow for the First Amendment, Freedom Forum.
The First Amendment’s protections for five core freedoms don’t extend outside the United States, but there are all-too-many times these days you wish they would.
Take the blatant disregard by Chinese officials of a free press’ rights in support of democratic principles in Hong Kong, in the case of publisher Jimmy Lai, now facing trumped-up criminal charges in connection with — get this — an office-lease issue.
Lai, 71, is a self-made billionaire, rising from penniless immigrant to a garment industry tycoon. He’s also publisher of the newspaper Apple Daily, one of the few independent news outlets in the city. Lai has been arrested at least four times this year, as China’s communist government moves to dismantle Hong Kong’s special legal protections for democratic rights established when Britain returned the former colony to China in 1996. A new national security law now being applied in Hong Kong establishes penalties including life in prison for such vague “crimes” as supporting foreign interference or calling for succession.
In the latest attempt to silence Lai, officials cited him for allegedly trying to defraud a building owner by establishing a “private” office in violation of a lease with Next Digital, a company Lai owns. A judge recently ruled that Lai must remain in jail until at least April, when his case may be heard.
Lai’s situation is dire and merits world concern, as well as immediate attention from the incoming Biden administration, even though Lai called for the re-election of President Donald J. Trump and a Lai aide was linked in November to funding of a spurious report about Biden’s son Hunter and fictitious business deals in China.
In August, following Lai’s third arrest, Trump called the action “a terrible thing” and said Lai was a “brave man” fighting on behalf of democracy in China and worldwide. Lai is an open admirer of what he calls Trump’s hardball approach to China on economic matters.
The free press and free speech principles at stake in Hong Kong — and the survival of its 24-year era as special zone of freedom within China — are larger than any pique over the Lai-Trump relationship.
Moreover, it stands as an example of repressive regimes around the world that increasingly threaten the basic human rights protected in the U.S. by the First Amendment: Religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
The Biden administration should set out right from the start — in word and in policy — that it is an advocate for all five of those freedoms. Tie U.S. support, military and financial aid and trade agreements to a commitment by other nations to real protection or the swift reintroduction of those freedoms worldwide.
The U.S. has lost moral high ground globally on freedom of the press as a result of not just the ongoing conflict with Trump — particularly with his claim that journalists are “enemies of the people” — but also with the collapse of the economic underpinnings of traditional media organizations, worsened by the disruption and disinformation spread as “news” through social media.
In yet another blow to the goal of First Amendment freedoms being deployed worldwide, Freedom House, which tracks internet freedom around the world, notes that the coronavirus pandemic is a factor in accelerating a dramatic decline in free expression globally, as tyrannical leaders use anti-COVID-19 measures as excuses to restrict the flow of news and to punish or prevent protest against government policies.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 25 journalists have been killed in 2020 around the world, with 64 more missing, and that more than 250 journalists remain jailed. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently wrote that CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon has suggested Biden name a special envoy for press freedom, reporting to the Secretary of State.
A first stop for such an envoy certainly could be in Hong Kong — once thought as a possible beacon of democracy that would encourage more freedom throughout China. Lai is one of hundreds, if not thousands, caught up in moves by China’s leadership to extinguish that beacon.
“You can deliver freedom through the media,” Lai once said when asked why his newspaper took such bold stands despite the dangers.
Let’s hope media — calling new attention to his plight, combined with new U.S. government efforts as Biden takes office — can deliver in return: Freedom for Lai from jail in Hong Kong but also freedom in the larger sense, for nations from Turkey to Venezuela to Myanmar to Egypt and wherever else free expression and religious liberty are under attack.
Gene Policinski is a senior fellow for the First Amendment at the Freedom Forum, and president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.