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Beijing’s attempt to stop the press

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper will shut down after the government’s latest power play


Copies of Apple Daily newspaper are packed at the printing house in Hong Kong on June 18. AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Beijing’s attempt to stop the press

Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy print newspaper, will end its 26-year run by midnight Thursday. The paper, long a target of pro-Beijing forces, has run out of money to pay its 800 employees following the government’s move to freeze its assets. 

Police arrested five of its editors and executives and raided its newsroom last week, alleging the newspaper breached Hong Kong’s national security law by colluding with foreign powers.

Apple Daily’s board of directors decided on Wednesday that Thursday would be the last issue of the newspaper. The crackdown is a significant blow to Hong Kong’s press, which had previously enjoyed broad freedoms, and an example of the expansive reach of last year’s national security law in silencing dissent in all sectors of society.

Five hundred police officers descended on Apple Daily’s headquarters on Thursday of last week, barring reporters from their desks and carrying away more than 40 computers. Earlier in the day, they arrested editor-in-chief Ryan Law; Cheung Kim-hung, CEO of Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company; associate publisher Chan Pui-man; platform director Cheung Chi-wai; and Next Digital COO Royston Chow. Authorities also froze assets of companies connected with Apple Daily: Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited, and AD Internet Limited. The Beijing-imposed national security law punishes violators with up to life imprisonment.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee accused the newspaper of using journalism as “a tool for actions that endanger national security.” Authorities claim more than 30 Apple Daily articles, some dating back to 2019, have called for foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland China. They have not disclosed the articles involved.

“Journalism is not a crime,” Next Media Trade Union wrote in a statement. The group called the crackdown a “blatant violation of freedom of press in the name of national security” and said the warrant allowing the police to search and seize journalistic materials will “damage public confidence in the press, deterring them from agreeing to interviews or providing information, [and] would weaken the role of the press as the Fourth Estate.”

The raid was the second on the pro-democracy publication since August, when police arrested Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai. A Roman Catholic and outspoken critic of Beijing, Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for unlawful assemblies and faces other charges, including foreign collusion. The government also froze his assets, worth $64.3 million.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned last week’s arrests and said in a press briefing the allegations against Apple Daily “appear to be entirely politically motivated.” He noted, “We are concerned by increased efforts by authorities to wield the national security law as a tool to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting views, and to stifle freedom of expression.”

In recent months, public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) fired two journalists critical of the government. A Hong Kong court convicted a former RTHK freelance producer for improperly accessing public records for a documentary investigating purported collusion between the police and mafia. China has also increased control over Hong Kong media: Chinese tycoons own the city’s news outlets, Beijing plans to open a propaganda department for Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong government is drafting “fake news” legislation.

Charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces, Law and Cheung remain in detention and will appear in court in August. Authorities have released the other three executives on bail.

Despite last Thursday’s clampdown, Apple Daily staffers printed 500,000 copies of the newspaper the next day, six times the usual daily circulation. One video clip showed a reporter typing on a Bluetooth keyboard at his desk with his smartphone replacing the confiscated computer. Citizens supported Apple Daily by lining up at newsstands at 12:30 a.m. last Friday to purchase their copies. On Thursday, the newspaper will print 1 million copies of its last issue.

As the environment in Hong Kong tightened, Apple Daily remained fearless in its criticisms of Beijing and support for the democracy movement. As hundreds of police officers blocked streets to prevent any protests on June 12, the second anniversary of a major pro-democracy protest, Apple Daily ran a front-page ad showing a solitary protester holding a yellow umbrella in a deserted Hong Kong street. In block letters it reads “I will stay in Hong Kong and continue to …” inviting readers to write in their answer. Prominent activists filled in the blank with “fight,” “be myself,” and “do my part,” Apple Daily reported.

As Apple Daily’s prospects dim, many of its staff have left. The beleaguered news organization stopped updating its website’s financial section and English edition on Tuesday. It also ended its YouTube newscast on Monday. Concluding the 9:30 p.m. segment, news anchor Ingrid Tse said, “The road ahead is difficult. We wish everyone peace and hope that even without our platform Hong Kong’s journalists can still hold their ground and safeguard the truth.”

—WORLD had updated this story since its original posting.

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FIMIKI

I remember 20, even 10 years ago, the cautious optimism that China would become more like Hong Kong. We're a long ways away from that now. Is there any turning back?