Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s most-read newspaper and the territory’s leading opposition voice, may end all its operations by the end of this week.
Local authorities and the city’s new Security Bureau have arrested several of its top editors on national security grounds and ordered the freezing of HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of its affiliates’ financial assets. Five hundred police raided the newspaper’s headquarters last week, rifling through and confiscating journalists’ editorial materials, cell phones and computers.
The publication has asked for some of its assets to be released so that it can continue to pay staff wages. This was refused by the government’s security chief John Lee, who described parent company Next Digital as a “crime syndicate.”
The paper warned that its print and online editions will likely cease by Friday. Apple Daily employees have been told that they can resign without having to give notice. Many have done so, but others have decided to hang on until the very end.
On Monday, the paper broadcast its final online live news show. Late Tuesday, it halted its small English-language operations and ended all of its web publishing activities. In a succinct final missive, it wrote: “This concludes the updates from Apple Daily English. Thank you for your support.”
Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai has been in prison since late December after being found guilty of participating in an “illegal assembly,” and is awaiting trial on additional charges.
The paper’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law and Next Digital’s chief executive Cheung Kim-hung were arrested earlier this month and charged on Saturday for “colluding with foreign elements” and denied bail. Three other arrested executives have been released to await further investigation.
Hong Kong adopted a Beijing-imposed national security law on July 1 last year. It introduces potential life imprisonment and extradition to mainland China for offenses including secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It also increased government controls of the media sector.
Critics say the law restricts freedom of expression in the territory that was supposedly guaranteed until 2047. The law undoes some of the freedoms that Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy under the “one country, two systems” regime and which were enshrined in the mini constitution known as the Basic Law.
Only months after the law was introduced, scores of police raided the Apple Daily offices. Arrested at home earlier the same morning, Lai was paraded through the newsroom in chains and handcuffs.
The second, even larger raid by 500 police on the Apple Daily offices took place earlier this month on June 10, and followed the arrest of the five executives at home that morning.
Police have stated that more than 30 Apple Daily articles may have violated security law, without publicly detailing which ones. The claims mark the first time the legislation has been wielded against media articles.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the administration was “broadly concerned by increased efforts by authorities to use this tool [national security law] to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting voices, to stifle freedom of expression.”
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam shot back that the take-down of Apple Daily did not seek to impinge on press freedoms. She accused the U.S. and other critics of “trying to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law” and “beautifying” such acts.
Despite repeated queries from the press, authorities have never clarified what sorts of coverage might be considered in violation of the law, which is vague and thus broadly interpretable. Asked about the subject on Tuesday, Lam merely said the law was in fact “very well defined” and that “normal journalistic work” would not run afoul of it.
The Apple Daily fiasco is clearly deeply sensitive to Chinese authorities. Although western TV news can only be received in limited number of hotels and high-end apartments in China, TV reports by CNN about Apple Daily’s woes were censored by mainland broadcasters and replaced with a test screen devoid of video.
Meanwhile, local readers in Hong Kong have bought huge numbers of the paper’s print editions as an expression of appreciation and support, or to hold on to as keepsakes. The publication celebrated its 26th anniversary on Sunday.
In an editorial on the paper’s imminent closure, veteran journalist and contributor Poon Siu-to slammed the government’s decision to silence critical voices as short-sighted.
“Apple Daily is a mirror for Hong Kong society,” he wrote. “Sometimes the truth it exposes is ugly and unpalatable. … But it is exactly such a mirror that society needs to identify its own malaises, so that such malaises can be addressed before they gradually become bigger problems.
“This way, society can remain strong and move forward.”
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