With Apple Daily’s Death, Hong Kong Press Feels the Lash

Hong Kongers’ love of press freedom lives on as final edition sells a million copies

The June 24 closure of the rambunctious anti-government broadsheet Apple Daily has the rest of Hong Kong’s press corps in deepening concern about what is likely to happen next as Beijing continues its crackdown on the city.

The feisty anti-Beijing newspaper’s slogan was, “An Apple a day keeps the liars away.” But the paper couldn’t withstand the draconian National Security Law, a major factor in its demise after 26 years of existence. In a final act of defiance, Apple Daily ramped up its daily print run to a million copies on June 24 from its usual 80,000 and apparently sold them all.

Another local newspaper, Citizen News, quoted former Apple Daily executive chief editor Lam Man Chung saying almost all of the million copies had been sold. Three convenience shops told Asia Sentinel the paper had sold out quickly.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam hit back at criticism of her government’s measures against the newspaper, saying they were “beautifying” acts that endangered national security. She said reporters who engage in “normal journalistic work” need not fear the security law. When asked what constituted “normal journalistic work,” Lam replied, “Journalists should be in a position to judge whether one is breaching the law.”

Last week, in the wake of the arrests of Apple Daily executives, Hong Kong National Security Chief John Lee told reporters, “Do your journalistic work freely according to the law, provided you do not break the law, especially the security law. If anybody’s act causes damage to the reputation of journalistic work because they are involved in a conspiracy, then it is only to the good and credibility of Hong Kong journalism if action is taken against criminals who use journalistic work as a tool.”

If those words were meant to carry any dubious reassurance, they were met with skepticism by journalists in the city. As long ago as July 2020, citing concerns about the future under the National Security Law, the New York Times announced it would move some of its staff to Seoul although reporters would remain to cover news in the city.

"China's sweeping new national security law in Hong Kong has created a lot of uncertainty about what the new rules will mean to our operation and our journalism," New York Times executives wrote in an email to staff, according to a report on The Times’ website. "We feel it is prudent to make contingency plans and begin to diversify our editing staff around the region."

It is uncertain if other international press organizations will follow The Times out of the city if the situation deteriorates more. Even before, in August 2018, Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet was refused a visa and had to leave the city after he presided over a Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club luncheon as club vice president that featured a speaker the government didn’t like. The paper has continued its operations there.

On June 23, Hong Kong police followed up arrests of five senior executives of Apple Daily and Next Digital, its Hong Kong-listed parent, with the arrest of an Apple Daily opinion writer, Yeung Ching-kee, on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces which threatened national security. Lai, who founded the paper in 1995, faces two charges under the National Security Law. The 72-year-old tycoon is serving 20 months in prison for protest-related offenses.

On the night of June 23, as Apple Daily employees were working on their last edition, a crowd gathered in the rain outside the newspaper’s headquarters, waving mobile phones with lights on to express support. The front page headline of the last edition of Apple Daily said in Chinese, “Hong Kongers’ painful farewell in the rain.”

“The symbolism is important,” Evan Fowler, an associate of the Henry Jackson Society, a UK security and foreign policy think tank, told Asia Sentinel. “To the people of Hong Kong, it says Hong Kong is no longer a city that tolerates critical voices. It will affect Hong Kong’s press landscape, and further ingrain those fears that underpin self-censorship.” Fowler was born in Hong Kong but now lives in the UK.

The muzzling of the mainstream press will likely force critical voices to find new homes in small, online community platforms, Fowler predicted. “Oppositional voices may disappear on the surface, but I do not believe they will be silenced.”

Hong Kong still has some online newspapers that do not toe the Chinese Communist Party line, such as the Chinese-language Stand News and the English-language Hong Kong Free Press.

Globally, the arrests and closure of Apple Daily sparked calls for foreign countries to punish these acts. Reporters without Borders said it “deplores” the shutdown. Hong Kong’s international ranking in the Reporters without Borders World Press Freedom Index has plunged from 18th place in 2002 to 80th in 2021. It appears certain to fall further.

“We urge the international community to respond to this assault on the free press in Hong Kong through the swift introduction of Magnitsky sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials,” said Benedict Rogers, chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a UK-based charity which monitors Hong Kong affairs. He called on the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, the EU to adopt a lifeboat scheme for Hong Kongers, and the UK government “to do more to live up to its legal, historic, and moral obligation to the city and those journalists in jail who carry British citizenship.”

Cédric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders East Asia bureau head, said, “If the international community does not respond with the utmost determination, (Chinese) President Xi Jinping will know that he can erase press freedom in Hong Kong with complete impunity, as he has already done in the rest of China.”

Some 31 European Parliamentarians wrote Carrie Lam to decry the shutting of the paper and the arrests, saying the decision by Hong Kong authorities to close Apple Daily by starving it of resources “will be met with international condemnation and have a long-term impact on foreign investment into the city.”

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, “The forced closure of Apple Daily by the Hong Kong authorities is a chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong. It is crystal clear that the powers under the National Security Law are being used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent – rather than keep public order.”

Similarly, Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau condemned what he described as “the forced closure” of Apple Daily.

On June 24, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted that she was “deeply saddened by the forced shutdown of Apple Daily.” She said Taiwan will always stand with the Hong Kong people in their struggle for freedom.

Keith Richburg, director of Hong Kong University’s journalism and media studies center, said there are no well-defined red lines for journalists under the security law. In contrast, other countries have clear-cut red lines, where for example in Thailand, criticism of the king is not allowed, said Richburg on June 21 at a panel organized by the journalism schools of Hong Kong Baptist University and Chinese University of Hong Kong.

On June 23, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion column by L. Gordon Crovitz and Mark Clifford, headlined, “What China did to Apple Daily, it could do to any company.”

Crovitz is a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal and a former publisher and editor of the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. Clifford is a former chief editor of two Hong Kong English-language newspapers, the South China Morning Post and the Standard. As members of the board of Next Digital, both voted to close the paper after authorities used the national security law to freeze its assets, their column disclosed.

“Its death at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party is a warning of what can happen to any company in Hong Kong,” warned the column.

“Couldn’t sleep and bought the last edition at 6:30 when it arrived in Discovery Bay where I live,” tweeted Eric Wishart, a former AFP editor-in-chief, on June 24. “It was sold out within minutes. The death of more than a newspaper.”

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