Apple Daily is dead. At midnight on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy news outlet closed, forced out of business after authorities froze the assets of the 26-year-old tabloid and arrested executives and journalists. Through its outspoken support for protests, it had come to stand for resistance itself: for the freedom to know what is happening, to challenge authorities, and to imagine and demand another Hong Kong.
Beijing is determined to crush that resistance. Each day it turns the screws further. Many have fallen silent already, but Apple Daily was defiant. Its owner, Jimmy Lai, already jailed over a protest, could face life in prison due to further charges under the draconian national security law. The editor-in-chief and chief executive of its parent company have been charged with conspiracy to collude with “external elements” after 500 officers raided its headquarters last week. Authorities say that the case relates to articles calling for sanctions on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, some published before the imposition of the security law, which is not supposed to be retroactive. This vindictive action marks the criminalisation of journalism. On Wednesday, the company announced it was closing overnight, citing employee safety and staffing levels after officers arrested its lead opinion writer.
This is the darkest moment yet for press freedom in the region. Its chilling effect, not only on the media, but even private discussion, is profound. But journalists anticipate a further crackdown. The guts and tenacity of Hong Kong’s reporters made its media essential to understanding what was happening in the city and on the Chinese mainland. Prior to the handover, Beijing guaranteed freedom of speech and the press, but reneged on that promise via acquisitions, intimidation and economic pressure. That process accelerated when protests engulfed the city in 2019. Having harshly repressed protesters and mainstream politicians, authorities turned to the media.
The public service broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has seen programmes pulled and its head replaced by a career bureaucrat without media experience, while one of its producers was recently convicted of criminal conduct for accessing a public database while investigating police misconduct. A “fake news” law is on the way. Police have gained new internet censorship powers and censors have been told to vet films for content that might infringe the national security law. Meanwhile, foreign reporters have faced visa denials and a judge recently refused bail to a former lawmaker, citing texts to, and interviews with, foreign journalists.
Beijing has rightly been condemned for ruthlessly trampling over the autonomy and rights pledged to Hong Kong. Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, described Apple Daily’s closure as “a chilling demonstration of [the] campaign to silence all opposition voices”. Pressure on universities and the judiciary is intensifying. The first trial under the national security law began on Wednesday, without a jury. Though attacks on the free press and the rule of law undermine Hong Kong’s status as a financial centre, Beijing is determined to stamp out dissent at all costs.
Yet hundreds of well-wishers gathered at the Apple Daily building on its final night, and long queues formed at newsstands on Thursday to snap up its farewell edition. A million copies, more than 10 times its usual print run, were produced to meet demand. The spirit of resistance in Hong Kong is wounded but struggles on. How long it can survive, without the free flow of information, is another matter.