Hong Kong’s pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily has announced that it will print its last edition on Thursday, following a tumultuous year of police raids and the arrests of its owner and other staff on charges of violating a China-imposed national security law.
The end of the popular tabloid, which mixes pro-democracy discourse with racy celebrity gossip and investigations of those in power, has escalated alarm over media freedom and other rights in the Chinese-ruled city.
In an article on its website on Wednesday, Apple Daily said it was going to stop updating its website and cease operations at its paper from midnight. “Tomorrow [June 24] will be the last publication day,” it said.
“Thank you to all readers, subscribers, ad clients and Hong Kongers for 26 years of immense love and support,” it said. “Here we say goodbye, take care of yourselves.”
The decision, it said, was “based on employee safety and manpower considerations”.
Apple Daily has come under increasing pressure since its tycoon owner and staunch China critic, Jimmy Lai, was arrested in August last year under the contentious national security law.
The legislation bans anything Beijing deems secession, subversion, “terrorism” and collusion with foreign forces, and was imposed in the wake of huge pro-democracy protests that rocked the semi-autonomous territory in 2019.
Following Lai’s arrest, 200 police raided the paper’s headquarters, while another 500 police stormed the building again last week. They arrested five other Apple Daily executives on charges of collusion and froze 18 million Hong Kong dollars worth ($2.3 million) of the tabloid’s assets.
On Wednesday, police again arrested a senior columnist on the same charge. Yeung Ching-kee wrote editorials for the newspaper under the pseudonym Li Ping.
Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Divya Gopalan said Yeung was a “prolific writer and well known for his outspoken views on China”.
“His detention is seen as an extension of Thursday’s police raid on Apple Daily’s headquarters, when they carried out a series of arrests, and for the first time in a media organisation, confiscated reporters’ notebooks, computers and other documents.
“The police say that investigation is ongoing and it has sent chills across the media community here.”
Apple Daily’s publisher, Next Digital, said in a statement on Wednesday that the decision to close the newspaper, which employs about 600 journalists, was taken “due to the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong”.
Rights groups condemned Hong Kong’s crackdown on the Apple Daily.
Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific regional director, said the paper’s closure was “a dark day for press freedom”.
“The paper has been effectively banned by the government for publishing articles that criticised it, and for reporting on international discussions about Hong Kong,” she said. “This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression.”
Hong Kong Watch, a United Kingdom-based advocacy group, called for additional sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials.
“Beijing has launched an all-out assault on press freedom in Hong Kong by finally shutting the largest pro-democracy newspaper in the city,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch.
“The journalists at the paper continued to report and deliver the news without fear or favour in the face of advertisement boycotts orchestrated by Beijing, the arrest of the newspaper’s owner and founder Jimmy Lai, the arrest of the newspaper’s executives and journalists, and a number of raids by the Hong Kong Police.
In the end, Rogers said, “it was the decision by the Chinese Government to freeze the paper’s assets that has forced its closure, signalling that Hong Kong is no longer a city where individuals can move their money freely”.
Hong Kong authorities have previously dismissed criticism of the clampdown on the Apple Daily, with leader Carrie Lam insisting on Tuesday that the arrests and the asset freeze was not an attack on press freedom.
“Don’t try to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law,” Lam said during her regular weekly press conference.
“Don’t try to beautify these acts of endangering national security. And don’t try to accuse the Hong Kong authorities for using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or to stifle the freedom of expression.”