Apple Daily Diary: The end of ‘free’ journalism in Hong Kong?

Photo: Lam Man-chung, executive editor-in-chief of Apple Daily, applauds colleagues on the paper’s last day. Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters

27 June 2021 | Anonymous | Guardian

Hong Kong police national security operation has forced the closure of the city’s most vocal and pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. Its senior executives arrested, companies charged, and accounts frozen, the paper survived for less than a week after hundreds of officers raided the newsroom, accusing it of foreign collusion. Here a reporter from the 26-year-old paper describes the final days.

Thursday 17 June

I was woken up by a call from my colleague at 7am. I knew these early morning calls are never good, and I was right. He said five of our senior management had been arrested by the national security department, and, as we spoke, hundreds of police officers were at the gates of our office. “Not again,” I thought to myself. This routine – arrests followed by a raid – had already happened once, last August.

Our livestream was the first thing I turned to. Armed officers in uniform flooded our lobby, and soon our colleagues were ordered to wait outside the gates or in the canteen on the top floor. Even more troubling, the police claimed their warrant granted them power to search and seize journalistic materials. A direct attack at a news institution.

After the police left about five hours later, we rushed back to count our losses: at least 44 journalists’ computers were seized. Hardware can be replaced, but they also froze bank accounts, threatening operations and payment of wages. For the first time, the prospect of shutting down felt very real.

Dear Subscribers. Thank you for supporting Apple Daily and Next Magazine. We are sad to inform you that Apple Daily and Next Magazine’s web and app content will not longer be accessible at 23:59: 23 June 2021, HKT.

Apple Daily Page

Saturday 19 June

By 8am I was queuing outside the West Kowloon magistrates’ court. Apple Daily’s chief executive Cheung Kim-hung and editor-in-chief Ryan Law were charged with “collusion with foreign forces”, a crime under the national security law. The others had been released on bail. Dozens of colleagues and ex-colleagues waited, some since 5am, for a seat inside to show support. I thought: two days ago I was supposed to have a meeting with Law, and now he is in the dock. Being there was all I could do.

We thought the judge would grant bail, but he didn’t, and gave no explanation. We waved at our colleagues. I could only say “Hang in there”. Barring a successful appeal, they’ll be behind bars until at least mid-August.

Photographers gather round as workers deliver the final Apple Daily newspapers into newsstands in Hong Kong. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Monday 21 June

With accounts frozen, we headed to the office, expecting it would be our last day. The shuttle bus to the newsroom was silent, everyone swiping their phones for news.

The board of Next Digital was meeting in the afternoon to decide our fate. At 3pm the news came but it wasn’t what we expected. They postponed their decision to Friday, hoping the government would unfreeze our accounts. People were angry and confused. The main issue was the risk of more arrests, not frozen accounts. To drag this on did not make sense.

Some determined to stay on and work till the last minute. Others believed danger was imminent, and one more day at Apple Daily meant one more day at risk. There was an exodus. The finance news team stopped updating the website, and all the video editors resigned.

My news team was given two hours to decide. It was one of the most complicated decisions ever. We knew our editor wouldn’t leave even if even one reporter stayed, and many of us couldn’t live with leaving him behind. Most of us stayed. We focused on a special feature to give our paper a proper send-off.

Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, arrives at Lai Chi Kok reception centre in a prison van. Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters

Wednesday 23 June

Another police raid had been rumoured, and we were told to work from home. I was woken up by another call: the chief opinion writer for the China section had been arrested.

It can’t be proved, but most of us saw it as punishment for delaying the closure. The board called a meeting and announced Apple Daily would stop publication no later than Saturday. Editorial management pushed it even earlier: today would be our last. And, just like that, our newspaper was ended by a thuggish act by the government.

We rushed back. The end of Apple Daily was obviously the main focus, and every team worked to publish their special features two days earlier than planned. It was a hectic and emotional day in the newsroom, but professional.

At 10.30pm the photographers told everyone to go to the roof for a final drone shot. A crowd of about 100 passed through the rain to the edge of the roof. Down by our gates hundreds of people waved their phone lights, chanting supportive slogans. My colleagues shouted “Thank you” back at them. I could hardly hold back my tears.

Copies of Next Digital’s Apple Daily newspapers are seen at a newsstand in Hong Kong, China May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Lam Yik/File Photo

In the final hour before midnight, those who had finished their work backed up as much content as possible before the website shut down and all content was erased, 26 years’ worth.

We worked until the literal last minute. The final news update was published at 11.55pm, and it was the resignation of our deputy publisher Chan Pui-man, arrested a week ago. As the front page was signed off by our executive editor, rounds of applause broke out for the senior editors who led us through this incredibly hard time.

Sadness was replaced by a sense of achievement. For once, there was no more news for us to work on; we embraced each other and took farewell photos in an almost graduation day-like mood. On the other side of the office, a record-breaking 1 million copies were being printed and would be sold the next day.

It would be painful for our bosses in jail to see their beloved newspaper cease publication, but from the support we got from the people of Hong Kong, I’d like to think we’ve done something right these last 26 years, and we handled its last days with dignity. Until we meet again.

The Apple Daily paper became a symbol for protesters in Hong Kong
Getty Images

Apple Daily: The Hong Kong newspaper that pushed the boundary

24 June 2021 |  Yvette Tan | BBC

It started off as a local tabloid with a reputation for sensational headlines and paparazzi photographs.

But over its 26 years in print, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily became something rarer – a newspaper unafraid to be openly critical of the Chinese state and a standard bearer for the pro-democracy movement.

Its role as one of Hong Kong’s most vocal defenders won fans, but also contributed to its eventual demise.

Last year, its outspoken founder Jimmy Lai was arrested and jailed under a string of charges just months after the imposition of a new national security law.

And last week, the authorities said reports by the paper had breached the national security law. They froze its bank accounts and arrested key staff members.

Apple Daily announced it was closing on Wednesday afternoon, signalling both the end of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy paper and a broader journalistic era.

“Apple Daily really was a key institution of Hong Kong society,” Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said. “It was something people grew up with, [it was] part of our daily lives.

“There are other outlets, but no one was quite as big and vocal as Apple Daily. That’s why the government was so annoyed with them. But they refused to back down – they stayed true to themselves.”

Forbidden fruit

Apple Daily was established in 1995 by Lai, and was reportedly named after the forbidden fruit in the Bible. “If Eve hadn’t bitten the forbidden fruit, there would be no sin, no right and wrong, and of course – no news,” Lai told the Lianhe Evening News.

The paper soon established itself as a tabloid and became known for its sensationalist articles and bold headlines. Its early coverage centred on crime and entertainment news, and occasionally strayed into unethical territory.

Interview with Jimmy Lai Chee-ying of Apple Daily, 1995
Jimmy Lai at the Apple Daily offices in 1995

But over the years the paper evolved and started to cover more politics. Hong Kong began experiencing a series of social movements in the early 2000s which saw people resisting integration with mainland China.

Dr Joyce Nip, a senior lecturer in Chinese media studies at the University of Sydney, told me this growing resistance opened up the market of political news for Apple Daily. She also said it gave the paper a unique advantage when other mainstream news outlets began “toeing the line of one country [one system]”.

“Apple Daily generally disapproves of the Beijing political system, mainland China and its appointed administration in Hong Kong, both in its news agenda and in its [framing] of the news,” said Dr Nip.

And while the paper continued to cover soft news and entertainment, it produced a growing number of political pieces and cemented its position as an unapologetically pro-democracy outlet.

Its reporters are typically barred from covering news in mainland China, and none were permitted to cover the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The paper’s criticism of the Chinese government and pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong also resulted in frequent advertising boycotts.

The beginning of the end

In June last year, Beijing implemented a sweeping new security law – despite much criticism and protest.

The law gives Beijing powers to shape life in Hong Kong it has never had before. Critics say it effectively curtails protest and freedom of speech, though China has said it will return stability.

Just months after the law was implemented, Lai and a handful of other media figures and activists were arrested and the Apple Daily officers were raided.

But the paper did not back down. If anything, it doubled down – accusing the police of “blatantly bypass[ing] the law and abusing their power”.

Around 200 police officers raided the paper's office
Around 200 police officers raided the paper’s office

For a while it seemed as though the paper would continue – even as its founder faced an increasingly long string of charges and was then sentenced to 20 months in prison.

In an interview with the BBC before he was jailed, Lai said he would not give in to intimidation.”If they can induce fear in you, that’s the cheapest way to control you and the most effective way and they know it,” he said.

“The only way to defeat the way of intimidation is to face up to fear and don’t let it frighten you.” captionJimmy Lai: The Hong Kong billionaire becomes emotional as he faces prison

But on 17 June – just days before the paper’s 26th anniversary – history repeated itself.

Hundreds of police officers raided the paper’s headquarters and this time, they froze HK$18m ($2.3m; £1.64m) of its assets over allegations that its reports breached the national security law.

Police also detained its chief editor and four other executives. The freezing of company accounts meant the paper no longer had money to pay its staff and run daily operations.

Chief Operations Officer Chow Tat Kuen (C) is escorted by police from the headquarters of the Apple Daily newspaper
Chief Operations Officer Chow Tat Kuen (C) was escorted by police from the paper’s headquarters

“The government basically forced them to end themselves. They hadn’t even been found guilty but their assets were frozen. They had money but they just couldn’t touch it,” said Prof Tsui.

“It was a public display of power, saying loud and clear who is in charge and declaring what is unacceptable behaviour,” Dr Nip said.

The announcement of its closure on Wednesday followed a tumultuous board meeting that saw one of its journalists arrested.

Mark Simon, an adviser to Lai, told the BBC the meeting was meant to “decide the fate” of Apple Daily. The police disruption he says, was meant to “influence the outcome of this… they wanted to make sure it closed quickly”.

“Jimmy, he knew all along [the closure] was going to happen. It was no secret. We all knew it was coming but they [carried on] because that’s what brave journalists do. I think the future of journalism in Hong Kong will be a battle… journalists will have to fight every day.”

Apple Daily journalists hold freshly-printed copies of the newspaper's last edition while acknowledging supporters gathered outside their office in Hong Kong
Apple Daily journalists hold freshly-printed copies of the newspaper’s last edition

On Wednesday night, hundreds turned up outside the Apple Daily headquarters in the rain to say their farewells, shining mobile phone lights and shouting messages of encouragement.

Journalists inside the building, who were putting together the paper’s last edition, would occasionally come out onto a balcony and wave. Some one million copies were printed for the paper’s final edition.

Its sister paper Apple Daily Taiwan, which is a financially independent subsidiary of parent company Next Digital, will continue to run out of Taipei.

The road ahead

So what does the closure of one of the city’s loudest pro-democracy voices signal for press freedom in the city? Professor Keith Richburg, director of journalism at the University of Hong Kong, believes it is impossible to know the full implications of Apple Daily’s closure.

“We really cannot know if it presages a broader attack on the media in general,” he said. “We need to see whether the government and police are targeting Apple Daily alone, or signalling to the media more broadly that critical coverage will no longer be tolerated.”

Others, however, are more optimistic.

“There are still lots of good journalists doing good journalism in Hong Kong, so I wouldn’t say this is the end of press freedom,” Prof Tsui said. “It’s more dangerous now to be a journalist – the stakes are a lot higher, but it is not impossible.”

An employee stacks freshly printed papers onto a pallet in the printing facility of the Apple Daily newspaper offices in Hong Kong
Apple Daily editions making their way out last week

Earlier this week, Apple Daily broadcast the last ever episode of its live news show and shared a final message to its viewers.

“We hope that even though this platform [will] no longer be around, that journalists continue to pursue the truth. Thanks again to all for your support. To the people of Hong Kong, stay strong. May we meet down the road. Goodbye.”


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.