Apple Daily’s death leaves a shadow over the free press in Hong Kong

Hong Kongers were the mourners and the city’s newsstands the funeral home as residents lined up across the city to purchase the final edition of Apple Daily.

The pro-democracy newspaper has been an irritant to city officials for decades. The company was forced to To close after officials froze his assets and senior journalists arrested under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on the territory after pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Residents rallied en masse to buy the final edition on Thursday – Apple Daily printed 1 million copies instead of its normal 150,000 – in a silent act of resistance. “Hong Kong people feel really sad, and this is the only support I can give,” said Deborah, a 50-year-old teacher who stood in line in the rain.

Apple Daily was a potent symbol of the latent dissent still raging beneath the city’s surface. The closure of the Chinese-language newspaper shows how authorities are using the National Security Law to stifle Hong Kong’s free-spirited media.

The newspaper that challenged authority

Apple Daily was founded by Jimmy lai, a 73-year-old entrepreneur who made his fortune in tailoring and retailing clothing before launching the newspaper in 1995.

Beijing promised a high degree of autonomy to Hong Kong for 50 years after the city was transferred from British sovereignty to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, including freedom of the press and of speech.

Lai has long been one of China’s top critics in the city. When Li Peng, the Chinese leader most closely associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, justified the crackdown on student protesters, Lai was furious. He called it “a turtle egg” in an opinion piece, a Chinese insult similar to calling someone “a son of a bitch,” and has been a nemesis of Beijing ever since.

Jimmy Lai, founder of Apple Daily, was convicted and jailed for participating in a protest and faces several separate charges © AFP via Getty Images

Apple Daily has mixed celebrity gossip with serious news and inquiries. The newspaper was one of the few major publications printed on Chinese soil willing to criticize local and central leaders, and its influence spread through the city’s media. “The company has also trained many senior reporters,” said Ronson Chan, president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

The tabloid was not without criticism and has been accused of sensationalism, sexism and racism. Until the early 2000s, he published a column under the pseudonym “Fat Dragon,” which interspersed reviews of local bureaucrats with reviews of brothels. More recently, he has been accused of racial profiling in his coverage of ethnic minorities and Chinese residents of the city.

Apple Daily was popular, but the newspaper and Lai have faced a firestorm since the 2019 protests, in which the company was accused of leading cheerleaders. The tabloid printed large posters that were waved at the protests and lambasted the authorities and Carrie Lam, the city’s general manager.

“Supporting Apple Daily has become a certain type of activism,” said Rose Luqiu, assistant professor of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, from buying the newspaper to buying it. actions in Next Digital, its parent group.

It was “not only to bring back the social movement, but also to mobilize the movement. This therefore prompted the authorities to use harsher repression tactics, ”added Luqiu.

Tim, a 21-year-old college student, started reading the newspaper because of his coverage of the protests. “Especially during the protests, it became clear that we needed Apple Daily in our lives,” he said. “It guided my political views.”

Authorities accused Apple Daily of being one of the leaders of pro-democracy protests in 2019 and imposed strict national security law to suppress dissent

Authorities accused Apple Daily of being a cheerleader for pro-democracy protests in 2019 © AP

The newspaper’s militant approach, however, may have hastened its demise, analysts say.

Lai was condemned this year for his participation in an event. He also faces separate charges including conspiracy to collude with foreign forces under the National Security Act and has been jailed. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment and many believe he will never be free again.

Apple Daily executives arrested include Ryan Law, the newspaper’s editor, and an opinion writer who used the pseudonym Li Ping. Hundreds of the newspaper’s journalists have lost their jobs and live in fear of reprisals.

“This is an ongoing process of increased press restrictions in Hong Kong which has accelerated in recent months and has come to a head in recent weeks,” said Ian Cheong, associate professor at National University. from Singapore who studies authoritarianism. in Asia.

“Apple Daily is emblematic of the more open and freer spirit of news reporting that was once associated with Hong Kong. . . Its closure therefore puts an end to this period. “

The authorities will keep up the pressure

Apple Daily’s death was seen as a victory for authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing, but has been condemned by Western governments.

Joe Biden, the US president, blamed the shutdown on “the intensification of the crackdown on Beijing” and called on the government to release the newspaper’s staff.

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, mentionned the national security law “led journalists to increasingly self-censor”.

Lam, however, accused Apple Daily of using its status as a media organization as “protective cover,” saying, “We do not deal with news agencies or reports, but acts which are suspected of endangering national security.

Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, said Apple Daily endangered national security © Bloomberg

Beijing was particularly furious at the editorials of the Apple Daily, which police said urged governments to impose sanctions on the Hong Kong government and mainland Chinese officials following the protests. Lai also supported Donald Trump’s hard-line approach to Beijing.

United States slapped sanction on dozens of Hong Kong and Chinese officials, forcing Lam to keep “lots of money” at home because the banks were afraid of violating the measures by having her as a client.

Rival newspapers were also unsympathetic. Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper, accused Apple Daily of “political mobilization” unworthy of a traditional news organization. A front page of the South China Morning Post asked, “Was Apple Daily a defender of freedoms or a desecrator of national sovereignty?”

Many journalists believe the authorities could extend their crackdown beyond Apple Daily. Chris Yeung, senior reporter at CitizenNews, a Hong Kong news organization, said the lawsuits had raised concerns among journalists that their reporting or interviews would leave them in jail. “Everything has the impression that it could happen, it is very worrying,” he said.

Editorial office closing

In the final hours in the Apple Daily newsroom, reporters rushed to report on the newspaper’s end.

“There were colleagues crying, there were people taking pictures with each other, and others were still working very hard until the last moment,” one reporter said.

Ingrid Tse, a 25-year-old journalist who has just joined the company, said reporters stayed in the office until 6 a.m. Thursday morning, drinking, eating and compassionate.

When the last newspaper went to print, everyone gathered in the middle of the office and shouted congratulations to the editors. “Even now, I still can’t accept that it’s all over,” she said.

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