Hong Kong’s popular tabloid newspaper Apple Daily and its website will likely shut by this weekend, possibly earlier, after a ruthless campaign against it led by President Xi Jinping’s National Security agents.
Apple Daily’s closure could come as early as mid-week
The owner of parent company Next Media, Jimmy Lai, was jailed on foreign collusion charges in 2020
Hong Kong police maintain the arrests are an effort to thwart collusion with foreign forces
In recent weeks, the national security police specially set up in Hong Kong by Mr Xi have arrested five senior editors on foreign collusion charges and frozen the assets of the parent company Next Media.
Last year the national security police threw Next Media’s owner Jimmy Lai in jail on foreign collusion charges, while local police have charged and successfully prosecuted the 73-year-old for multiple illegal protest cases.
Former colleagues told Ms Poon that staff are resigning en masse in the face of the pressure and the paper’s demise could come as early as Wednesday.
The arrests of the senior editors last week didn’t initially deter the journalists at the staunchly pro-democracy media outlet, who organised a special 500,000 print run of the next day’s paper that was snapped up by supporters.
But a US-based advisor to Jimmy Lai, Mark Simon, said in an interview with Reuters that the asset freeze imposed by police meant the company can’t continue to pay staff.
Next Media will hold a board meeting on Friday and has indicated if police don’t unfreeze the company’s assets, it will cease printing the paper and stop updating the website.
“The closure of Apple Daily unfortunately signifies there is no longer any freedom of speech in Hong Kong or freedom of the press because the government can just take it away”, said Kevin Carrico, a columnist for Apple Daily and Chinese studies specialist at Monash University.
Police and Hong Kong’s Justice Secretary John Lee maintain the arrests are legitimate efforts to thwart collusion with hostile foreign forces.
“We are talking a conspiracy in which there are a series of acts — one of the acts involves publication in Apple Daily and also online news regarding articles that invite foreign countries, external enemies, to impose sanctions, or take hostile activities against Hong Kong and the PRC,” he told the media in the wake of last week’s arrests.
Hong Kong police say multiple articles published by the newspaper are under investigation for violating the vague and sweeping security law that Mr Xi brought in and warned other journalists in Hong Kong not to repost any of the paper’s stories.
A thorn in Beijing’s side
Apple Daily was launched in 1995, two years before Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule.
Started by retail clothing businessman Jimmy Lai, the paper undercut rivals on price and served up a mixture of tabloid sensationalism, celebrity gossip and a staunchly local political streak highly critical of both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments.
As Mr Lai became an increasingly prominent critic of Beijing, the paper faced calls for advertising boycotts from pro-Beijing loyalists in the city, but it remained Hong Kong’s most popular paper by circulation.
In 2019 when the city erupted in mass protests over a plan to allow criminal extraditions to the mainland, Apple Daily locked in behind the protest movement, at times using its front page to call for people to attend demonstrations.
Mr Lai also visited Washington and met Trump administration officials while publicly calling for international support for Hong Kong against Beijing’s pressure.
In a 2019 interview with the ABC during the protests, Mr Lai dismissed allegations by Chinese state media that he colluded with foreign forces and vowed to keep going.
He’s currently in jail after being convicted for ‘illegal assembly’ for attending a mass protest in 2019 that police didn’t approve but is awaiting trial for collusion which could see him never released.
Even after his arrest, Apple Daily continued to publish with journalists adjusting to the vaguely defined limits of censorship imposed under the national security law.
Chinese Communist Party-owned media outlets such as the Global Times repeatedly referred to Mr Lai as a ‘traitor’ during the protests and called him a prime target for the new security law when it was introduced in 2020.
Now he’s in jail, his assets are frozen and his paper is about to shut just a week before Xi Jinping presides over a massive parade and celebration in Beijing to mark 100 years since the founding of the Communist Party.
“They will come after The Stand News next, then they will come after the other media not controlled by the government,” said Ms Poon.