Hong Kong’s leading independent newspaper, Apple Daily, said it was closing down Wednesday and would print its final issue Thursday, succumbing to an unprecedented campaign by the Beijing-backed government to silence a popular tabloid at the center of the city’s democracy movement.
The decision came hours after police arrested a columnist for the paper and days after authorities froze $2.3 million in company assets and arrested five editors and executives under the territory’s draconian national security law, which was imposed last year by mainland China’s ruling Communist Party.
The newspaper is accused of conspiring with foreign countries to slap sanctions on China and Hong Kong over the territory’s diminished autonomy — charges largely viewed as a pretext by authorities to muzzle dissent.
The board of Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital, issued a statement citing the “current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong” as the reason why the newspaper would print its last issue Thursday.
The closure brings an end to a newspaper that crashed onto the scene two years before the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China with a mixture of lurid reporting, gossip and coverage of the Chinese mainland that irked the Communist regime.
Owned and operated by the brash apparel magnate Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily made little effort to hide its editorial stance supporting democracy and Hong Kong’s continued autonomy, which was guaranteed for 50 years under the handover agreement signed by Britain and China.
The 73-year-old Lai has been jailed since December and is facing multiple charges, including participating in an illegal demonstration and violating the national security law.
Experts say Apple Daily’s days were numbered after China launched a broad crackdown on dissent following protests in 2019 over an extradition bill that brought millions out onto Hong Kong’s streets and sparked months of violent demonstrations.
Armed with the nebulously worded national security law, which targets subversion, separatism and collusion with foreign forces, Beijing has been systematically dismantling pillars of Hong Kong society that formerly distinguished the Asian financial hub of 7 million people from the authoritarian mainland.
Since last year, almost every leading democracy figure has been jailed. The city’s legislature no longer includes opposition members, schools have revamped teaching materials and fired teachers critical of China, and art exhibits and cinemas are censoring politically sensitive content.
The government campaign against Apple Daily, which included raids of its newsroom by hundreds of police officers, caps months of scrutiny of Hong Kong’s once-vibrant independent media landscape.
Earlier this year, officials gutted the city’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, by letting go reporters, axing shows considered critical of the government and appointing a new editor-in-chief with no media experience.
The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, warned in a press conference Tuesday that news organizations must not “subvert” the government and urged journalists to conduct only “normal journalistic work.”
Hong Kong has seen its ranking in the global press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders tumble to 80th place, out of 180 countries, from 58th in 2013.
The closure of Apple Daily is “a big blow to the freedom of the press and freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” said Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Assn. “Hong Kong people are already losing all different kinds of freedom. Under the national security law, the red line is hidden and invisible.”
Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Liu from Hong Kong.
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