Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, will shut down online at midnight on Wednesday and print its final edition on Thursday, in a move observers fear signals the death-knell for press freedom in the territory.
The paper and its activist founder, Jimmy Lai, had become symbols of the pro-democracy movement and a thorn in the side of Hong Kong’s government and police, making it a prime target in the government’s efforts to stifle Hong Kong’s media.
National security police raided its offices last week as part of a crackdown that also included the freezing of its assets and accounts, crippling the company and guaranteeing its demise.
The management at the 26-year-old paper said on Wednesday afternoon it would cease updating the website at the end of the day, and would roll out the final issue the following day. The move followed an announcement by the company’s board that it would cease operations “no later than … Saturday”, but the management said its concerns about staff safety and numbers were behind the decision to close immediately.
A chief opinion writer was arrested under the national security law earlier on Wednesday.
In addition to striking the most serious blow yet to press freedom inside Hong Kong, the closure of the paper serves as a warning to foreign outlets operating there.
“Apple Daily thanks its readers, subscribers, advertisers and Hongkongers for their love and support in the past 26 years. Farewell and take care,” the publication said.
By Wednesday evening, as staff worked on the final edition, authorities were already working to clear the building. The government-linked Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, which owns the site, reportedly issued a notice of breach of lease notice to Apple Daily Printing Ltd, and initiated repossession procedures.
Last week, police arrested five executives, including the editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, and the chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, who were later charged, accused of colluding with foreign or external forces to endanger national security. Hundreds of officers raided the newsroom, seizing journalistic materials.
The accusations related to dozens of unspecified articles that police said called for foreign sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. Police also announced the prosecution of three companies, and froze HK$18m (£1.66m) in assets of Apple Daily Ltd, Apple Daily Printing Ltd and AD Internet Ltd, and locked accounts containing more than $500m.
The company said on Monday that without the release of the funds it would be unable to pay staff or operating costs and would be forced to close. .
Apple Daily had already ceased its finance news, English-language service and nightly online broadcast, and on Wednesday its sister title, Next Magazine, also announced its closure.
In a statement on Thursday, Apple Daily said: “The board of directors of Next Digital Limited regrets to announce that due to the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong, Apple Daily in its print form will come to an end no later than the last edition on Saturday 26 June 2021 and the digital version will no longer be accessible no later than 11:59pm on Saturday 26 June 2021.
“The company thanks our readers for their loyal support and our journalists, staff and advertisers for their commitment over the past 26 years.”
Apple Daily Taiwan said it was a financially independent subsidiary and its operations and staff of about 500 were unaffected by the closure.
Later in the afternoon supporters left laminated notes of thanks on the fence of Apple Daily. “Thank you for risking your life, risking arrest over the past two years, to report the truth for Hongkongers,” read one in a photo shared on social media.
AFP reported staff planned to print a million copies for the final edition. “I have tens of thousands of words in my heart but I am speechless at this moment,” Ip Yut-kin, chairman of the paper’s parent company Next Digital, said.
Hongkongers had flocked to newsstands following last week’s raid, buying more than five times the usual number of copies in support of the paper, despite warnings from the city’s security chief that citizens – and the industry at large – should distance themselves.
“You should not collude with these perpetrators,” the security secretary, John Lee, told the city’s media. “Do not play cahoots with them, otherwise you will pay a hefty price.”
The announcement on Wednesday followed the arrestof the paper’s lead editorial writer under the national security law. Police confirmed the arrest of a 55-year-old man in Tseung Kwan O district, “on suspicion of conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security”.
He was later identified by Apple Daily as its lead opinion writer, who publishes under the name Li Ping. Li has written numerous comment pieces criticising government crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement and the media. After Jimmy Lai’s arrest last year, he said Beijing was venting its anger over US sanctions by targeting Hong Kong media and people.
In an April column, he criticised the prosecution of the producer Bao Choy at the broadcaster RTHK, who had accessed a publicly available database as part of her research into an infamous attack on protesters in Yuen Long in 2019.
Under the headline “Freedom, once an everyday commodity, now a luxury”, Li accused the authorities of seeking to intimidate the press, by “using all sorts of legislative and judicial means to try to silence Hong Kong’s journalists and push media outlets to close down voluntarily”.
Critics, including rights groups and foreign governments, have accused Hong Kong’s authorities of using the national security law to crush the city’s free press.
The European Union said on Wednesday the closure “clearly shows how the national security law imposed by Beijing is being used to stifle freedom of the press and the free expression of opinions”.
“Its closing seriously undermines media freedom and pluralism, which are essential for any open and free society.”
UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab labeled it a “chilling demonstration of [Hong Kong authorities’] campaign to silence all opposition voices”, and use the law to curb dissent.
The government has maintained that the prosecution of Apple Daily and its staff has nothing to do with press freedom, and that the accused had used journalistic tools as a “shield” to endanger national security. It has repeatedly refused to explain how the vaguely defined law applies to media, saying instead that reporters should know the difference between “normal journalistic work” and illegal acts.
“Every journalist in Hong Kong now has a metaphorical gun pointed at their heads,” Sharron Fast, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school, told AFP.
“When the result of your writing can lead to lifetime imprisonment - you are being censored. Apple will not be the last – just the latest.”