OROn Wednesday morning, Apple Daily reporter Angel Kwan was at a government press conference for the Hong Kong census when her phone began to vibrate with notifications. Six days earlier, hundreds of policemen had raided their workplace, arrested their bosses and confiscated dozens of computers. On Monday, the company’s board of directors had said it would have to shut down the newspaper unless authorities unfreeze its finances.
As he held his microphone to the government official, Kwan didn’t dare look at his phone and the news it announced: Apple Daily was shutting down. Today.
“I had the microphone and I said, ‘This is an Apple Daily question.’ And then I stopped for a second or two, just thinking: this is the last time I say this. “
Speaking to The Guardian from Apple Daily’s office, 24-year-old Kwan’s voice cracks. The reporter joined the ranks of Hong Kong’s most vocal and popular pro-democracy newspaper just a year ago. He had received other job offers and knew what he was getting into. Beijing had just imposed its controversial National Security Law (NSL) on the city, and authorities had been cracking down on the media for months.
It was accepted that the authorities wanted to shut down Apple Daily. Rumors spread that the authorities liked the symbolism of doing it ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial celebrations on July 1.
“I had thought about this [scenario] already, and I thought I would stay until the end, to witness everything and stay with my colleagues, ”says Kwan. “I don’t regret doing that, whatever happens.”
In the early hours of June 17, five senior Apple Daily executives, including editor-in-chief Ryan Law, were arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion, and the newsroom was raided. The operation targeted dozens of unspecified items that authorities said were part of a conspiracy for foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing, in violation of the NSL.
“This is the worst time in Hong Kong,” Apple Daily wrote to its readers.
Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung were charged, as were three related companies. The asset freeze paralyzed the company. He told staff that the newspaper would likely close and that they could resign without notice. After police arrested its top opinion writer on Wednesday, management removed the pin that night, citing concerns about workforce and staff safety.
The risk to the newspaper’s journalists was real. The city’s chief of security, John Lee, had told Apple Daily and the rest of the city’s media that they must “cut ties with the suspects” or they would regret it.
A journalist, who did not want to be named, says he resigned Tuesday amid rumors of another raid. “I am concerned that the police will see my day job as illegal, in their opinion, not mine,” he said.
His computer had been seized and his wife was pleading with them to leave town.
“I would like to stay here, but Hong Kong has changed a lot, in a way that would not allow me to continue as a reporter, because the pressure and threats that I am facing now are unbearable.”
In the last days of the newsroom, rival media followed reporters working on their latest stories as their colleagues came in to take photos, say goodbye and defiantly broadcast live to print shops.
“We didn’t know it would be our last day,” says Kwan. “We were determined to get the job done.”
Supporters gathered outside the building. The office in Tseung Kwan O is out of town and not in a place that people would go to unless they lived or worked there, says Kwan, still shocked and moved that people showed up. A restaurant owner in Yuen Long, 40 kilometers away, insisted on delivering food to the team. People hung thank-you messages on the fence, shouted and shone their torches through the rain.
“Some of my colleagues were looking out the window and they said: don’t look down or you’ll cry,” says Kwan.
“I was like, what the hell, we are reporters, I must watch! So I looked and cried. “
Staff lined the windows and balconies, turning on their lights. A small group approached the crowd, a man clambering over the fence to hand out copies of his final edition, fresh off the press. The staff spent the rest of the night together inside the newsroom, while a million newspapers hit the streets.
Hong Kongers queued since midnight to buy them all.
With street protests essentially illegal, people lamented the end of Apple Daily online, sharing the pages they were interviewed or featured on, photos of purchased copies, protest art, or written eulogies.
“When harsh criticism completely disappears, mild criticism is considered a nuisance,” said a person in mainland China.. “When mild criticism is not tolerated, silence is seen as an ulterior motive. When silence is not allowed, inappropriate praise is a crime. If only one type of voice is allowed, then that voice is a lie! “
TOpple Daily was launched in 1995, founded by Jimmy Lai, a stowaway boy from the continent turned billionaire, media mogul, and activist. Lai, who is now in jail on convictions related to protests and national security charges, told the BBC in 1995 he had always been a troublemaker. “I love problems. I love the intensity of the problems. “
The tabloid-style newspaper grew to be enormous in scope, with a checkered history that includes checkbook journalism, disorder, and sometimes unethical reporting alongside bold investigations into government corruption and police brutality. His wide coverage and support of the Hong Kong protests over the years made him a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“It changed journalism in Hong Kong,” says Keith Richburg, director of the Center for Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Hong Kong.
Its closure is a symbol of how that movement is being crushed, mainly under the weight of the NSL.
Authorities refuse to say how the law applies to the media. Critics say this is a deliberate strategy to encourage journalists to self-censor or limit coverage to avoid crossing red lines. In a circular argument, they say that the press has nothing to fear, as long as the journalists do not break the law they refuse to define.
The international outrage has had no effect. On Friday, Lee and Police Commissioner Chris Tang were promoted.
If the authorities really consider Apple Daily’s actions to be criminal, or if they are less timid about the limits they want to impose on the press, it is “the million dollar question,” says Richburg.
“Much of this will become clearer when they finally have a trial. If the government wants people to really understand that this is not about freedom of the press, but about specific things that Apple Daily did to violate national security law, they must expose it in public. “
SSome veteran media workers say that with Apple Daily gone and public broadcaster RTHK already gagged, they fear independent online media like Booth News, Citizen news Y Hong Kong Free Press they may be the next targets.
At least a third of Hong Kong’s major media outlets are owned by mainland China or have significant stakes in mainland China, while the rest are owned by Hong Kong conglomerates with business interests in China, according to a report.
Hong Kong Free Press is confident it can continue as normal, says editor-in-chief Tom Grundy.
“HKFP is an unbiased news outlet and our hard news reports have not changed. We’re taking one day at a time and we sit still, ”Grundy says.
On Friday, Apple Daily staff were busy cleaning their offices. After the announcement of the closure, the building’s government-linked owner began proceedings to get it back almost immediately, citing breaches of the lease.
“I did nothing wrong and I am proud to be here,” says Kwan.
“I have never regretted having made the decision a year ago. Hong Kong still needs journalists who are willing to tell the truth, even if it puts their career and freedom at risk. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism