A vendor sells copies of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong on August 11, 2020, a day after authorities had searched the newspaper's headquarters following the company founder Jimmy Lai's arrested under the new national security law. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

The earlier-than-expected closure of the Apple Daily newspaper has surprised its readers, ending the pro-democracy newspaper’s historical mission in Hong Kong.

Many readers remember a TV advertisement in 1995 showing Apple Daily’s founder, Jimmy Lai, shot with dozens of arrows but remaining calm while munching an apple. They could not have imagined at that time that the clothing retailer who founded Giordano would be in jail and face national security charges in 2021.

Born in 1947, Lai has been a United Kingdom national since 1996. He founded the Apple Daily in 1995 and remained one of the main sponsors of the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.

Over the past 26 years, the Apple Daily had covered the key events in the city, including the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, the financial crises in 1997 and 2008, the July 1 march in 2003 that opposed the Basic Law’s Article 23 legislation, the Occupy Central protests in 2014 and the anti-extradition protests in 2019.

The newspaper and Lai maintained their strong stance against the Communist Party of China throughout the years.

On August 10 last year, Lai was arrested by the police on charges of violating the National Security Law, which had been implemented in Hong Kong on June 30 in the same year.

He was granted bail two days later. However, he was arrested again, in December on fraud charges, and was not allowed bail.

In April this year, he was handed a 20-month jail sentence for joining illegal assemblies last August. He will face national security charges in court next month.

Journalism awards

On Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ), a New York-based non-governmental organization, granted its 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award to Lai to recognize his “extraordinary and sustained commitment to press freedom.”

“The CPJ award is richly deserved, and it should put a global spotlight on what is happening to Mr Lai and Apple,” the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal wrote in an article. “Mr Lai and his journalists have put their freedom at risk to challenge a real tyranny.”

Prior to this, Lai was presented the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom on June 14, becoming the first Hong Kong advocate of democracy to receive the prize. Last December, Lai was awarded the “Freedom of Press Award” by Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based NGO, for his role in founding the Apple Daily.

This file photo taken on February 7, 2011, shows Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai during an interview with AFP at his Apple Daily newspaper headquarters in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Mike Clarke

The end of an era

The death knell of the Apple Daily rang as the Communist Party of China prepared to celebrate its 100th anniversary on July 1, which also marks the 24th anniversary of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Last Thursday, more than 500 police officers raided the Apple Daily’s headquarter and arrested five executives. On Friday, Apple Daily’s chief editor Ryan Law and parent company Next Digital’s chief executive Cheung Kim-hung were charged for colluding with foreign forces. The remaining three executives were granted bail.

Secretary for Security John Lee also ordered a freeze on HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) worth of assets from Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited. 

Over the past few days, many staff members, including journalists working on the political and financial news teams, have resigned as the newspaper permitted its staff to resign without the customary one-month notice.

On Wednesday, police said they had arrested a 55-year-old man in connection with an on-going national security probe linked to the Apple Daily. The arrested man, surnamed Yeung, is reportedly an editorial writer at the daily who goes by the pseudonym “Li Ping.”

In the afternoon, the Apple Daily said its management had decided that its newsroom would stop operating from midnight in consideration of the safety of its staff and a lack of manpower. The online edition was to stop updating after Wednesday midnight while the last edition of the paper was to be printed on Thursday.

“Apple Daily thanks its readers, subscribers, advertisers and Hongkongers for their love and support in the past 26 years,” management said. “Farewell and take care.” Details about its staff and subscription arrangements were to be announced later.

The closure of the Apple Daily happened two days earlier than expected. The newspaper had said Monday that it planned to print its last edition on the coming Saturday.

Earlier in the day, Next Magazine, another publication under Next Digital, also announced its decision to fold. Louise Wong Lai-sheung, Publisher of Next Magazine, said in an open letter that there was nothing to regret as she and her team had enjoyed the freedom to report news in Hong Kong.

Apple Daily’s historical mission of safeguarding Hong Kong’s press freedom was coming to an end, said Ronson Chan, the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association’s new chairperson and a deputy assignment editor of Stand News. The closure of the Apple Daily, which was “the end of an era” in terms of press freedom, was not a good thing for Hong Kong as the paper was sizable and employed a lot of experienced journalists, Chan said.

He said he was worried that the Stand News would become the next target of the police under the National Security Law.

Media landscape

Last Thursday, United States State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington was broadly concerned by increased efforts by the Hong Kong authorities to use the National Security Law “to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting voices, to stifle freedom of expression.”

On Tuesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam accused the US of “beautifying” acts that endanger national security with its criticism of the Hong Kong authorities’ crackdown on Apple Daily. She said the arrest of Apple Daily executives last week had nothing to do with journalism and the move could not be described as suppression of press freedom.

“What we are talking about is not exchanging views between journalists and foreigners. It’s violating the law as defined in the national security law and based on very clear evidence which will bring the case to court,” Lam said. “So don’t try to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law and don’t try to beautify these acts of endangering national security.”

It would be hard for another newspaper to fill the void left by Apple Daily, Grace Leung, a lecturer at the School of Journalism of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told broadcaster RTHK. The shutdown of the newspaper, which has a strongly critical stance toward the government and a clear democratic view, would reduce the diversity of Hong Kong’s media landscape, Leung said.

Besides, Leung said, the government was sending a clear signal to the media not to breach the National Security Law, which she described as vague and broad. She said the move would curtail press freedom, with more journalists exercising self-censorship.

Read: Death knell tolls for HK’s Apple Daily