A supporter of two executives from Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung, holds up a copy of the newspaper during a protest outside court in Hong Kong on June 19, 2021, after the two were charged with collusion over their newspaper's coverage after authorities deployed a sweeping security law. Photo: AFP / Peter Parks

Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and its online edition could cease operations on Saturday if the Hong Kong authorities refuse to release part of its frozen assets to pay its staff.

Apple Daily’s employees received an internal memo on Monday that if the funds were not forthcoming, no articles would be uploaded to the media outlet’s digital platforms after 11.59 pm on Friday. They were told that as the last newspaper would come out on Saturday morning, they could choose to resign now and skip a notice period.

The outspoken publication’s closure would further undermine the former British colony’s reputation as an open and democratic society and send a stark warning to companies that could be vaguely and arbitrarily accused of “colluding” with a foreign country, media and press freedom advocacy groups said.

Last Thursday, about 500 police raided New Media’s headquarters as well as several residential flats. They arrested five directors of the media. 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. 

On Friday, Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law and Next Digital chief executive Cheung Kim-hung were charged with colluding with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. The three other Apple Daily and Next Media executives were granted bail the same day.

The board of Next Digital met last Saturday and decided that it would apply to the secretary for security to unfreeze part of the HK$18 million to pay wages. On Monday, it held another meeting and told staff the company could cease operations at the weekend. Directors would meet again on Friday to make a final decision.

“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favor. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected,” Mark Simon, an adviser to jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai, told Reuters on Monday. “We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month. It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”

Chris Yeung, who recently finished his four-year term as chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), said he lamented that Law and Cheung were arrested and charged.

Yeung said he had met many young journalists who are passionate about press freedom over the past four years. He said he believed that these media workers would shine in the darkness, referring to the worsening press freedom situation in Hong Kong.

The Apple Daily newspaper. People bought many extra copies on Friday after police raids on the company offices. Photo: AFP / Leung Man Hei / NurPhoto

Ronson Chan, HKJA’s new chairperson and a deputy assignment editor of Stand News, said he and other workers in the media industry would continue to speak up for press freedom in Hong Kong as people in the city deserved to know the truth from reporters.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the Executive Council, said journalists would not be in violation of the National Security Law if they only reported about foreign sanctions against Hong Kong and China. However, journalists could be prosecuted if they showed an intention of promoting foreign sanctions.

He said law enforcement officers would gather evidence including regarding journalists’ behavior, instead of a single news piece or article, to determine whether the accusations were valid.

On Sunday, Apple Daily celebrated its 26th anniversary. Pro-Beijing newspapers published a series of articles on Sunday and Monday saying it had published reams of “fake news” that defamed the police and the government over many years.

Since last Friday, 2021hkcharter.com, a website run by several Hong Kong activists who moved overseas, has been blocked by Hong Kong telecommunication service providers on police orders due to national security concerns.

People in Hong Kong cannot browse the website, which calls for improvements in freedom, human rights and democracy in the city, unless they use a VPN or business account.

Icarus Wong Ho-yin, founder of Civil Rights Observer, said it was important for Hong Kong to have a free flow of information to maintain its status as an international business hub. Wong said the Hong Kong government should explain whether 2021hkcharter.com was blocked because of its political initiatives.

Read: China and the West joust over HK Apple Daily raid