Apple Daily to Shut Down Within Days, As HK Civil Society Further Collapses

Last Friday, Hong Kong police arrested five Apple Daily executives on national security charges and froze the company’s bank accounts. On Saturday, a Hong Kong magistrate–the same one who presided over hearings for the 47 charged legislative candidates–denied the company’s editor-in-chief and CEO bail, remanding them in custody for months. On Monday, with its bank accounts frozen and ability to issue payroll hobbled, Apple Daily announced that it would likely shut down by the end of the week.

On the twelfth month since the passing of the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL), one week before its first anniversary, Hong Kong is set to lose its only pro-democracy newspaper. On Monday night, Apple Daily’s staff writers reported on their own newspaper’s imminent demise:

Apple Daily could be just days away from having to shut down after the board of directors at its parent company agreed on Monday to make a final decision on the matter on Friday pending an appeal to have the group’s assets unfrozen.

Next Digital’s board sent a letter to Hong Kong’s secretary for security, John Lee, requesting that some of the company’s assets be unfrozen so that employees can be paid.

If the decision is taken on Friday to cease operations, the online news section of Apple Daily is expected to stop updating on Saturday morning at the earliest, while the final print edition will also be published on Saturday.

Next Digital is due to pay its staff at the end of the month, which leaves fewer than 10 days before the company risks being in breach of labor laws due to salary arrears.

On Thursday, HK$18 million worth of assets held by three Next Digital companies were frozen, with the police warning seven local banks not to deal with the assets. [Source]

Few are optimistic that the Security Bureau will release the Apple Daily’s funds. On Monday evening, local media reported that a majority of its staff had resigned, suggesting that the newspaper would stop publishing as early as Wednesday. By midnight, at least one section of the newspaper had already stopped publishing.

The announcement on Monday of Apple Daily’s imminent closure came just one day after the newspaper celebrated its 26th birthday. Founded in 1995 by clothing magnate Jimmy Lai, who established his own media company in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, it was for years one of Hong Kong’s most popular news sources by readership volume, vociferously pro-democracy and anti-CCP from the start. One measure of how fiercely Apple Daily has resisted political pressure over the years, even as all of its local competitors have caved, is in the front pages of Hong Kong’s newspapers on key political dates. On Monday, observers on Twitter shared front pages from dates over the years where Apple Daily has stood apart:

On Monday, the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that Lai had won the 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award for extraordinary commitment to press freedom, a small conciliation for the 72 year old, who may spend the rest of his life in prison. For Reuters, James Pomfret reported a timeline of events leading to the newspaper and its executives’ downfall in Hong Kong’s post-NSL era:

June 20 1995 – Apple Daily publishes its first edition. Founded by businessman Jimmy Lai. The tabloid daily, with its critical reporting on China, is a runaway commercial success.

“As long as readers choose us, support our journalism, and agree with our position, no matter how strong the pressure becomes, we will be able to stand tall,” the newspaper said in an editorial that day.

In 1994 Lai had called Chinese premier Li Peng the “son of a turtle egg” in a weekly magazine that he launched before the daily. The insult rankled Beijing.

July 8, 2019 – Jimmy Lai meets U.S. vice president Mike Pence and Security of State Mike Pompeo in Washington to discuss the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy over a contentious extradition bill that has sparked mass protests.

The China state-owned Global Times calls Lai a “traitor” for “brazen collusion” with the West to fuel the Hong Kong protests. […] [Source]

While the Hong Kong government has waged an ongoing campaign against press freedom for months, restricting press passes, exerting pressure on legacy news channels, and gutting the city’s independent public broadcaster, the shuttering of Apple Daily due to the freezing of the company’s sizeable assets–amounting to a de-facto ban on the newspaper–is a grim new milestone in the demise of Hong Kong’s free press.

As Mark Simon, a senior advisor to Jimmy Lai, remarked in an interview with CNN, smaller media outlets stand little chance if a company as large as Apple Daily could be forced to close under the NSL: “We are probably the largest [outlet] by most estimates in Hong Kong. […] If you are a smaller outlet, if you are a blogger […] God help you if you get caught up in the Hong Kong national security apparatus.”

Additional setbacks were logged for Hong Kong’s imperiled pro-democracy movement this weekend, a marker of the cascading repressive effects since the passing of the NSL. For the first time in 18 years, Hong Kong will not hold its annual July 1 Handover Day protest, after the civil society group historically responsible for organizing it, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), said it would not apply for a police permit. Since 2003, the annual marches have been a staple event and a key barometer of public discontent with the government. It was banned in 2020 for the first time, on the first day that the National Security Law went into effect. Demonstrators nonetheless took to the streets, leading to the first arrests under the NSL.

In April, the Hong Kong government alleged that the CHRF had been operating illegally under the city’s Societies Ordinance, despite the fact that its activities had been condoned and authorized for almost two decades. Its last two convenors, Jimmy Sham and Figo Chan, both sit in jail, one awaiting a national security trial, and the other sentenced for illegal assembly.

Also on Sunday, two-thirds of the remaining district councillors affiliated with Civic Party, one of Hong Kong’s legacy pan-democratic parties, resigned. Public broadcaster RTHK reported that the councillors quit to pre-empt a looming loyalty oath that all district councillors will soon be required to take:

After the latest resignations, the party is left with just five councillors, down from the 32 elected in the 2019 polls.

[…] Their decisions come amid reports that the government plans to ask district councillors to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR next month.

The reports say the government will consider anyone to be in breach of the declaration if they endorsed a statement ahead of last year’s postponed Legco election vowing to press for the “five demands” of the anti-extradition protest movement, including voting down the budget.

While none of the ten councillors signed the statement personally, the Civic Party and pro-democracy candidates for the election did sign it. [Source]

The loyalty oath was introduced by the Hong Kong government alongside a package of electoral reforms in March that dismantled what remained of Hong Kong’s democratic elections.

Still more events over the weekend underscored how repression in Hong Kong has permeated into ordinary routines and everyday lives. On Sunday, Hong Kong Free Press reported that bottles of Watsons water, a popular mineral water brand, had been withdrawn from some supermarket shelves after displaying messages supportive of Hong Kong people. The incident has highlighted the degree of paranoia about perceived subversive messages in the current political atmosphere.

Many social media users have likened the Watsons water recall to short film “Local Egg” from the controversial 2015 movie “Ten Years,” a dystopian film about Hong Kong in the year 2025 with diminished human rights and freedoms. In the film, young Red Guard-like figures target and harass a small store owner for using the phrase “local” to market his fresh eggs, accusing him of supporting the banned localist movement.

And on Monday, a 40-year old man was arrested for flying a flag displaying the words “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times” from his apartment window. The phrase, ubiquitous during the 2019-2020 protests, has been banned by the Hong Kong government, which allege it carries “subversive” intent, a crime under the national security law.

With nine days to go before the first anniversary of the NSL, the situation in Hong Kong is this: its electoral process has been dismantled and rigged, and its most prominent pro-democracy politicians are either in jail or in exile. Its public broadcaster has been politically censored, and its largest pro-democracy newspaper is to be imminently shut down. Its extended tradition of annual peaceful demonstration has been abandoned. Messages as milquetoast as “Hong Kong is really beautiful” are being recalled, and acts as minor as hanging cloth off a window are prosecuted.

Below is a final message from Apple Daily’s nightly news broadcast. Initially translated by researcher Lokman Tsui on Twitter, it has been lightly edited for clarity:

“Tonight’s 9.30pm Apple news broadcast ends here. From October 5 until today, thank you to everyone over the past 260 days for your nightly support. The road ahead will be difficult. We wish everyone peace. We also hope that even though this platform no longer will be around, that Hong Kong journalists will continue to hold their ground and pursue the truth. Last but not least, thank you to the anchors, editors, and other colleagues behind the scenes for accepting an impossible mission, a mission in response to today’s society. Thank you again to all of you for your support. To the people of Hong Kong, stay strong. May we meet down the road. Goodbye.” [Source]


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