Martyrs — and newsmen — for freedom

Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for the Washington Times. He is a veteran reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor for the New York Times and other publications. Cliff’s most recent column is “Martyrs — and newsmen — for freedom” (at FDD, where it is posted with links). Cliff has kindly given us his permission to post his column on Power Line. He writes:

“I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom,” George W. Bush famously said.

I’ve never been convinced.

I think plenty of people don’t give a fig about freedom – not their own and certainly not anyone else’s. And I think there are those whose most heartfelt desire is to eradicate the freedom of others.

But there is a moral elite so devoted to the cause of freedom that they are willing to martyr themselves to prevent the future from becoming the nightmare George Orwell imagined: “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

Two such heroes – Jimmy Lai and Dmitry Muratov– are profiled in two documentary films. I unhesitatingly recommend them.

From the Acton Institute, now available online at no cost, is “The Hong Konger: Jimmy Lai’s Extraordinary Struggle for Freedom.”

Extraordinary is indeed an apt word for his struggle – and for his life story. As a child in southern China, he eked out a living carrying luggage at a railway station. One day, a passenger gave him a bar of chocolate as a tip. It was scrumptious. He asked where it came from. The man replied: “Hong Kong.” The boy immediately knew that city “must be heaven.”

Before long, a 12-year-old stowaway disembarked from a fishing junk and found work in a Hong Kong garment factory. Eight years later, he became the factory’s manager.

On a business trip to the United States, an acquaintance gave him a copy of The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek’s classic treatise on tyranny and freedom. He found it as delicious as the chocolate bar.

He went on to launch Giordano, a Chinese clothing company he named after a pizza parlor he had visited in America. It became a spectacular success.

But fashion was not his passion. In the early 1990s, he founded Apple Daily, which reported the news without fear, and in which he editorialized in favor of freedom and criticized China’s rulers. To Beijing’s chagrin, it soon became Hong Kong’s most popular newspaper.

In 1997, London handed Hong Kong to Beijing. Under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, China’s rulers promised that the rights and freedoms to which Hong Kongers had become accustomed during 156 years under the British Empire would be guaranteed for 50 years under the Chinese Communist Empire.

A few years later, Beijing began breaking that promise, leading to mass protests which were brutally suppressed.

In the summer of 2019, Mr. Lai visited Washington, where he met with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and members of Congress. He stopped by my think tank as well. I observed that he was putting himself in peril. He replied that the defense of freedom has always required risk and sacrifice.

I wrote a column about him. Articles denouncing it – and me – were soon published by China Daily – Global Edition, the China Institute of International Studies, and other Beijing outlets.

In August 2020, more than 100 police officers raided Apple Daily’s offices. Mr. Lai was handcuffed and arrested. Less than a year later, his newspaper was permanently shut down.

He’s now been in prison for almost three years awaiting trial on such trumped-up charges as “collusion with foreign forces.”

A British citizen, Mr. Lai has had opportunities to flee. Seventy-five years old, he could be spending his remaining years and considerable fortune sipping cocktails on the Riviera.

But he decided to trade the life of a billionaire for the life of a dissident; to stand up for freedom no less than the iconic protestor who blocked a tank during the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

Mr. Lai has a kindred spirit in Moscow. On Tuesday, September 26, the PBS documentary series, FRONTLINE, will air “Putin vs. the Press,” the story of Dmitry Muratov and his last-ditch battles to defend freedom in Russia.

Two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he founded Novaya Gazeta or “New Newspaper.” Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev donated some of his Nobel Peace Prize money to get the publication up and running. It was soon reporting on human rights violations, government corruption, and abuses of power.

Between 2000 and 2009, six of its journalists were murdered. Others have been beaten or had funeral wreaths delivered to their door.

Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation,” which began in February 2022, brought matters to a head. Anyone writing that Russia had “invaded” Ukraine or launched a “war,” risked prison.

Within a month, Novaya Gazeta was forced to stop publishing due to “military censorship.”

Three months later, Mr. Muratov auctioned off the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded in 2021 for his “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” He announced in advance that the proceeds would go to Ukrainian refugees. He hoped it might sell for a million dollars. An anonymous bidder paid $103,500,000.

A month later, aboard a Russian train, an assailant drenched Mr. Muratov with red paint spiked with acetone to burn his eyes.

Most of Mr. Muratov’s staff have emigrated. In Latvia, several have launched Novaya Gazeta Europe.

Mr. Muratov, however, has remained in Moscow where, earlier this month, he was designated a “foreign agent,” and accused of promoting “opinions that are aimed at forming a negative attitude towards Russia’s interior and foreign policy.”

One final point not made in the films: Moscow and Beijing have formed an alliance “without limits.” They are deepening their political, military, and economic ties with the dictators who rule Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

In the hearts of all these tyrants is the desire to damage or destroy the United States. They also share a vision of the future. It’s the one George Orwell imagined.

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