In Hong Kong’s biggest newspaper after news of its closure

By Jenni Marsh, CNN Business

One year was enough for an imposed Beijing National Security Act to be repealed Hong Kong’s largest and loudest pro-democracy newspaper.

Next media announced on Wednesday that Apple Daily, its flagship tabloid, would release its final copy Thursday due to an untenable environment in which its reporters had been arrested and millions of dollars in assets frozen. Its digital platform will cease operations on the same day, the company said in a statement.

The news sent shivers down the spine of the Hong Kong media industry and undermined government claims that the new legislation would not diminish press freedom.

China’s ruling Communist Party last year decided to align Hong Kong with its authoritarian rule bypassing the city legislature to implement the security law. It punishes anything that the authorities consider to be subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, up to life imprisonment.

As city chief Carrie Lam said at the time that press freedoms would always be protected, Apple Daily employees say they knew it was only a matter of time before they were targeted.

“But it was still a shock when it happened anyway,” said a reporter for the publication, who requested to remain anonymous out of fear for safety.

Since the entry into force of the law, Apple Daily has been paralyzed little by little. Founder Jimmy Lai – already in prison for attending a pro-democracy rally – was arrested and charged with colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security. Five of the newspaper’s top editors and executives have been charged with the same crime, apparently for using articles to call on foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong.

Hundreds of police twice raided the publication’s newsroom, more recently seizing computers and equipment – an alarming development for journalists and their sources in an increasingly sensitive environment. Several Apple Daily reporters had already resigned before this month, saying the rewards for their work no longer outweighed the risk of imprisonment.

Even as official pressure mounted on the newspaper, public support jumped up. Last Friday, after the arrest of its main editors, Apple Daily printed 500,000 copies which were sold.

It was not enough to counter a financial crisis provoked by the Hong Kong authorities. While Next Media told investors it had enough money to last 18 months from April, in recent days the newspaper’s bank accounts had been frozen.

As the board met to discuss the newspaper’s future on Wednesday, police again descended into the newsroom to arrest another reporter. A few hours later, the newspaper announced that after 26 years on the newsstands, it would close its doors.

“A woman sent me a note a few days ago saying that without Apple Daily, she no longer felt as secure as she used to be with a free press as a protector of society,” said Mark Simon, the one of Lai’s best advisers.

“They’re coming soon for everyone.”

A critical voice

Jimmy Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995, channeling the wealth he had accumulated as a textile mogul into the Next Digital publishing operation. The mission of its flagship title, Apple Daily, has always been clear: to criticize the Communist Party from which Lai fled mainland China as a child.

The newspaper caused a stir and his tabloid sensitivity quickly made it a market leader, providing Lai with a huge platform to influence opinion in Hong Kong. The newspaper created a paparazzi culture in the city and occasionally aroused anger for its reporting methods. But he also followed the wealth of mainland officials and their families in Hong Kong, and devoted many resources to holding those in power to account.

An advertisement introducing the newspaper to the world made it clear that Jimmy Lai knew the Apple Daily was making him a target.

Beijing’s growing economic influence in the early 2000s meant that other media often avoided open criticism of the Communist Party, concerned about the business implications. Lai didn’t care. Apple Daily continued to sting the bear, even though it meant large Hong Kong companies such as Cathay Pacific or CK Hutchison Holdings never advertised with the publication.

The newspaper did not back down as the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping grew more and more intolerant of everything dissent – in particular in its disputed or semi-autonomous territories like Hong Kong, which after being returned to China by Britain in 1997, was promised its own system of governance for 50 years.

This two-lane configuration led to a mismatch between how Hong Kong people expected to be ruled and Beijing’s desire to control the city.

Lai was a key figure in a series of 2014 protests dubbed the Umbrella Movement, which crippled central Hong Kong for months. His newspaper has become a symbol of opposition to Beijing’s plans for how the Hong Kong leader would be selected.

When mass unrest erupted again in 2019, this time over a bill proposing extradition to China, the front pages of Apple Daily urged readers to attend huge marches and printed anti-government posters to wear.

Anger in the city that year turned into the most serious violence Hong Kong has seen in decades: the city’s legislature was sacked, a dramatic 12-day siege unfolded at a university, and the international airport was closed at two times.

It was all too much for Beijing on Chinese soil. In June 2020, As the pandemic restrictions thwarted the ability of Hong Kong people to protest, China passed the National Security Law.

Over the next 12 months, almost all pro-democracy politicians were jailed or fled the territory. Apple Daily was the last great voice of the still-on the run pro-democracy camp.

Decline in media freedoms

Apple Daily has divided opinion in Hong Kong. It was loved by those who shared his liberal values ​​and hated by conservatives who accused him of causing chaos.

Again, his death has alarmed press freedom in Hong Kong. Tuesday, the head of the city I tried to dispel these fears, claiming that the police investigation into Apple Daily was “unrelated to the normal work of journalists.”

Michael J. Abramowitz, president of the NGO Freedom House, denounced this feeling.

“Treating independent and factual journalism as a threat to national security is an unacceptable attack on press freedom and is part of a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong “, did he declare.

It is not known now how Hong Kong The mini-constitution – the Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of expression and the media – will work alongside a national security law that sets increasingly narrow parameters for journalistic work.

Apple Daily shutdown following spate of press attacks freedom. the the city’s police chief recently proposed an anti-fake news law; a journalist was convicted of an administrative error during an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by the police; and the public broadcaster RTHK has seen its coverage reduced.

At the same time, there has been a crackdown on broader civil liberties. This year, the annual vigil in Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong was not allowed to take place, apparently due to Covid restrictions, and potential attendees were threatened with up to 12 months in prison.

As a sign of Hong Kong’s diminishing tolerance for political positions diverging from Beijing’s, Taiwan has announced that it will remove all non-local staff from its office in the city. Taipei has accused the Hong Kong government of asking its Taiwanese staff to sign a document recognizing Beijing’s claim to the autonomous island as a prerequisite for visa renewals.

When newsstands open next week, they’ll be missing the apple masthead that has been a staple for decades. Jimmy Lai remains in prison without being able to defend the founded newspaper. In the mid-1970s, one wonders if he will ever return to Hong Kong in freedom.

“I never imagined it would come to this.” said Andrea Lo, a freelance reporter in Hong Kong. “Apple Daily is an integral part of our daily life as Hong Kongers, but not only because it has always been the greatest champion of the voice of the people. We all find great value in his coverage of everything from pro-democracy protests to real-time reporting of incidents around Hong Kong. “

Grieving readers gathered outside the newspaper’s headquarters on Wednesday, holding signs, carrying cards and flowers.

“I think people will miss Apple Daily as a platform where they can speak freely and criticize the government and Beijing,” the Apple Daily newsroom staffer said.

“Maybe another medium will become our substitute,” he added dubiously.

– Lauren Lau contributed to this report.

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