Hong Kong’s embattled Apple Daily will close after 26 years in circulation, printing its final edition on Thursday and immediately stopping online publication following a national security law crackdown on the tabloid-style newspaper.
“Apple Daily is not perfect, but what will Hong Kong be like without us?” the paper said in an open letter to readers as its print run surged to 1 million for its last-ever edition. “We thank our readers for joining us. We have fought a good war.”
The landmark decision to fold by the newspaper’s management came just hours after Hong Kong’s national security police on Wednesday detained its lead editorial writer on suspicion of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces.
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Yeung Ching-kee, 55, also a senior columnist, was the sixth arrest under the national security law in relation to a series of articles published by the paper allegedly calling for foreign sanctions, following the detention of five top executives last Thursday.
Insiders said Yeung’s arrest prompted a fresh round of resignations, worsening the exodus since last week in which the newspaper lost nearly half of its workforce, that earlier this month had numbered 800.
It also emerged on Wednesday that the landlord of Apple Daily Printing Limited’s Tseung Kwan O headquarters would take back the site, accusing the company of breaching lease conditions but citing legal reasons for refusing to disclose further information.
A statement by the government-backed Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation said it had issued a notice to the printing company and initiated a re-entry process.
The move followed Apple Daily’s jailed founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, and two senior executives from Next Digital, being charged last December with fraud, accused of improperly subleasing office space at the paper’s headquarters to secretarial firm Dico between 2016 and 2020.
Local academics and politicians slammed this month’s arrests at Apple Daily, warning the closure of the paper would sharply diminish Hong Kong’s media landscape.
Western governments and the European Union also accused city authorities of using the Beijing-imposed legislation – enacted last June to ban acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces – to stifle press freedoms and the expression of opinion.
The earlier-than-expected closure of the tabloid was revealed on Wednesday afternoon in a message to staff saying the final print edition would be published on Thursday, rather than Saturday as previously anticipated.
No new online content will be uploaded to the website after midnight on Thursday, while the digital version and its online archives will be inaccessible after Saturday.
A notice appeared later on the Apple Daily website stating that management would cease publication ahead of the date originally set by the directors of Next Digital, the paper’s parent company, because of manpower limitations and to protect staff.
“The company will soon announce arrangements for staff and subscribers. Apple Daily thanks readers, subscribers, advertisers and Hongkongers for their great support in the last 26 years. Goodbye and take care,” the online article said.
The sudden decline of the Chinese-language paper may have shocked many across the world, but was seen as inevitable by most of the hundreds of staff who continued working until the last edition went to print.
The tabloid’s journalists, reduced in number and working away from the Tseung Kwan O office, were in a race against time to file and process stories before the presses started rolling for the last time.
“An ominous sentiment descended over us early in the day, as we were warned against coming back to office to avoid another round of police raids,” said a veteran reporter on the feature desk.
“My first feeling was that I won’t have the chance to finish my last two interviews scheduled on Thursday for my last story.”
Referring to an earlier high-profile police operation at the Apple Daily offices, another reporter at the newspaper said: “As sad as it is, I expected this day would come since the police raid last August. It’s just pathetic the way it ends, not because of news quality or market elimination.”
At about 8.45pm on Wednesday, some members of staff flashed the light from their mobile phones to a group of some 40 people who were outside their office to show their support for the paper. “We’ll support Apple Daily until the end!” the well-wishers chanted.
At the building’s lobby, floral tributes were laid to celebrate the paper’s 26th anniversary, which fell on Sunday.
An internal memo said staff would remain in post until Friday. But associate publisher Chan Pui-man added in the message that those with concerns could have their contracts terminated on Wednesday and maintain the same level of compensation.
Yeung, the paper’s lead editorial writer, was picked up early on Wednesday at his Tseung Kwan O home.
Records show Yeung, who wrote under the pseudonym “Li Ping”, had penned about 800 columns and commentaries since 2016, with 331 of those coming since 2019. His most recent was published on Tuesday.
A police source said that, since the enactment of the national security law, Yeung had written at least five of the articles under investigation for breaching the legislation by calling for foreign sanctions.
Police are still trying to identify at least one or two other writers in connection with the case, according to the source, who added that Yeung had not been charged and was likely to be held overnight for questioning.
His arrest comes less than a week after the paper’s editor-in-chief, publisher and three other executives were detained and accused of running more than 30 reports calling for foreign sanctions against the city and mainland China since 2019.
Top editor Ryan Law Wai-kwong and publisher Cheung Kim-hung were charged last Friday with conspiring to collude with foreign forces and remanded in custody, while the other three were released on bail without charge.
The force earlier cited the publication of the articles – understood to be mostly commentaries and opinion pieces, including several written by the tabloid’s jailed founder Lai – as evid8ence of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and external elements.
Before Wednesday’s arrest, the board of directors at Next Digital had planned to publish the final edition of Apple Daily on Saturday if management had by that time failed to convince the Security Bureau to release some of the HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) in assets frozen during last week’s police operation.
Next Magazine, a sister publication of Apple Daily, revealed it was shutting down just hours before the latest arrest, while the tabloid’s English-language news service and financial news website had already stopped operating on Tuesday. Apple Daily’s nightly online news programme aired its last episode a day earlier.
The European Union said the closure of Apple Daily operations clearly showed the national security law was being used to “stifle freedom of the press and the free expression of opinions”.
“Its closing seriously undermines media freedom and pluralism, which are essential for any open and free society. The erosion of press freedom is also counter to Hong Kong’s aspirations as an international business hub,” an EU spokeswoman said.
Britain’s foreign minister Dominic Raab accused the Hong Kong government of using the security law to “silence all opposition voices”.
“It is crystal clear that the powers under the [law] are being used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent – rather than keep public order,” he said in a statement.
Amnesty International described the closure of the paper as “the blackest day for media freedom in Hong Kong‘s recent history”.
Ray Yep Kin-man, a political scientist at City University, said the shutdown would severely dampen freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
“Local media might be getting more one-sided, with the domination of pro-government papers, and there would be much less critical points of view. This is just a very sad time for the media industry in the city,” Yep said.
Ronson Chan Ron-sing, the newly elected chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said the forced closure meant Hong Kong was losing a media outlet that nurtured thousands of workers in the industry and had competently performed its role as the fourth estate over the past two decades.
However, Professor Song Sio-chong, from the Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau at Shenzhen University, said some of Apple Daily’s articles displayed an obvious political leaning and were suspected of violating both the Basic Law and the city’s governing principle of “one country, two systems”.
“Some [articles] may also be seen as subverting the state,” he said.
Additional reporting by Phila Siu and Ng Kang-chung
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