Apple Daily, the pro-democracy Hong Kong tabloid founded by media tycoon Jimmy Lai, will close after its assets were frozen and its journalists were arrested, delivering a blow to the city’s free press.
The newspaper said its final edition would be printed on Thursday and its website would stop being updated from midnight the same day. Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company, had initially said it would continue publishing until Saturday, but its closure was expedited because of concerns for its employees’ safety.
Apple Daily has long been known for its willingness to confront, investigate and criticise the government. But Lai and the newspaper became a top target for the Chinese government over their support for the pro-democracy protests that engulfed Hong Kong in 2019.
Authorities have mounted a crackdown on the Chinese territory’s civil and political life following the demonstrations, imposing a sweeping national security law that has severely curtailed opposition and stoked fears of interference in the education system, the courts and the media.
An editorial writer for Apple Daily who uses the pen name Li Ping was arrested under the law on Wednesday. Authorities raided Apple Daily’s offices and arrested five executives, including Ryan Law, its editor-in-chief, last week — the first case of the national security law being used against journalists.
Authorities have accused the newspaper and its executives of colluding with foreign forces by publishing calls for sanctions against the Hong Kong government following the protests and the introduction of the national security law.
Police labelled Apple Daily’s offices a “crime scene” and urged other reporters not to associate with the newspaper or its employees.
Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995 and has long been one of Beijing’s staunchest critics in the territory. He was arrested last year and jailed over his participation in a protest and faces separate charges, including conspiracy to collude with foreign forces under the national security law. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment.
“Police did not rule out the possibility of more arrests, and the next [target] could be other media,” said Chris Yeung, former chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “You don’t know when the law will be invoked against yourself, your colleagues and other media friends, that’s a very scary situation.”
Dominic Raab, the UK’s foreign secretary, said the closure of Apple Daily was a “chilling demonstration” of Hong Kong’s “campaign to silence all opposition voices”.
Chinese diplomats in Hong Kong accused western governments of condoning criminal behaviour carried out “on the pretext of press freedom”.
Hong Kong had long been seen as a beacon of press freedom in Asia but media in the Chinese territory has come under increasing pressure.
Radio Television Hong Kong, the public broadcaster modelled on the BBC, has been forced to undertake sweeping changes. These have included the replacement of the organisation’s leader with a civil servant with no journalistic experience and a call for stronger oversight of the broadcaster’s output.
Bao Choy, an RTHK journalist, was also prosecuted and fined after investigating police misconduct during a mob attack.
The New York Times moved part of its Hong Kong operation to Seoul last year after its employees struggled to obtain work permits in the territory.
Hong Kong authorities also rejected an application to renew the visa of Victor Mallet, a journalist at the Financial Times, in 2018.
“In the past, definitely Hong Kong was the regional hub for media because it was so easy to publish here and the rankings for press freedom were very high,” said Rose Luqiu, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s journalism department and a former journalist. “[But] there is evidence of a paradigm shift from a libertarian media system to an authoritarian media system.”
A number of Apple Daily reporters had quit the paper this week following the arrests.
“What have we done wrong? We’re just doing our parts to protect the precious values of Hong Kong,” said one journalist who resigned just before the decision to close the paper was announced. “It feels like the sinking of the Titanic.”