Hong Kong pro-democracy paper Apple Daily confirms closure

Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily announced Wednesday it will print its final edition after authorities froze its assets using a sweeping new national security law, silencing the city’s most China critical media outlet.

The decision is the latest blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms and will deepen unease over whether the international finance centre can remain a media hub as China seeks to stamp out dissent.

Journalists outside the paper’s headquarters on Wednesday evening said they planned to print one million copies overnight — a staggering number given Hong Kong’s 7.5 million population. 

And they spoke of their heartbreak at the paper’s closure and loss of some 1,000 jobs.

“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, told AFP.

Apple Daily has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, with unapologetic support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China’s authoritarian leaders.

Those same leaders have used a new security law to bring about its rapid demise.

Owner Jimmy Lai, currently in jail for attending democracy protests, was among the first to be charged under the law after its imposition last year.

But the final chapter of the 26-year-old paper was written over the last week when authorities deployed the security law to raid the newsroom, arrest senior executives and freeze its assets.

That last move crippled the paper’s ability to conduct business and pay staff.

On Wednesday, Apple Daily announced its closure “out of consideration for the safety of its staff”. Its website will go offline overnight. 

– ‘Chilling’ –

British foreign secretary Dominic Raab described the “forced closure” of the paper by authorities as “a chilling demonstration of their campaign to silence all opposition voices”.

The European Union said the closure “seriously undermines media freedom” as well as Hong Kong’s reputation as a business hub.

China imposed its security law on Hong Kong last year to stamp out dissent after the city was convulsed by huge and often violent democracy protests. 

Authorities said their prosecution of Apple Daily was sparked by articles and columns that allegedly supported international sanctions against China, a view now deemed illegal.

It was the first time reporting and opinions published by a media outlet in Hong Kong had triggered the security law.

Lai, chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung have all been charged with colluding with foreign forces to undermine China’s national security and remanded into custody. 

On Wednesday Yeung Ching-kee, one of the paper’s top columnists, was arrested on the same charge.

The decision to freeze Apple Daily’s assets laid bare the sweeping powers now at the disposal of Hong Kong authorities to pursue any company deemed to be a national security threat. 

The security law does not require a court order or criminal conviction to freeze assets.

Multiple international media companies have regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business-friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city’s mini-constitution.

But many local and international outlets are questioning whether they have a future there.

“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.” 

– First trial –

Hong Kong has plunged down an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year. Mainland China languishes at 177th out of 180, above only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

China has hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the 2019 demonstrations.

Authorities initially said it would only target “a tiny minority”. 

But it has radically transformed the political and legal landscape of a city that China promised would be able to keep key liberties and autonomy after its 1997 return.

On Wednesday the first trial under the new law got under way. 

Tong Ying-kit, 24, is accused of terrorism and secession after he allegedly drove a motorbike into police while flying a protest flag that read “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. 

His trial is not being heard by a jury in a major departure from Hong Kong’s common law traditions.

Tong’s case is unusual because he is the only Hong Konger so far charged under the security law with an explicitly violent act.

More than 60 people have now been charged under the law, including some of the city’s best-known democracy activists, but their offences are related to political views or speech that authorities have declared illegal.

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