Security police interventions force closure of Apple Daily, Hong Kong's 26-year-old pro-democracy news outlet

Apple Daily’s inaugural editorial. Photo from Allan Au Ka-lun. Used with permission

The 26-year-old pro-democracy news outlet Apple Daily announced it will cease publication of both its print and digital editions this week. The print team will shutter its operations on June 23 and publish its last edition on June 24, while the digital team will cease operation by Saturday, June 26. The decision to shutter the print edition follows the arrest of its editorial opinion writer, Yang Qing Qi, by Hong Kong security police on June 23.

Earlier this week, board members from Next Digital, the news outlet’s parent company, stated that Apple Daily would be forced to shut down by June 25 unless the government agreed to unfreeze its assets to allow them to pay staff salaries and other operational costs.

The board meeting was called following the arrest of five Apple Daily executive staff members on June 18. Next Digital’s CEO Cheung Kim-hung and Apple Daily Chief Editor Ryan Law were charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign forces in violation of the national security law.

The Security Bureau also froze 18 million HK dollars of the three companies’ assets — Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited — on the grounds that they were subject to a national security investigation.

Apple Daily's request that their assets be un-frozen was ignored. The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam defended the police's action and stated that freezing assets is an internationally accepted practice designed to prevent people from endangering national security:

In the past few days, many staffers have resigned and a number of production teams, including those from the Video News, English News, Finance News and Twitter have ceased operation.

Editorial opinion writer Yang Qing Qi, whose arrest on June 23 was one of the catalysts for the shuttering of the outlet's print edition, wrote in his last editorial that intellectuals and media workers should not abandon their integrity at critical moments.

The security police warned that they would carry on their investigation and might arrest other staff members.

Why Apple Daily matters to Hongkongers

Apple Daily was founded on June 20, 1995, by garment businessman Jimmy Lai, who had become a political activist after the Chinese government crackdown on the pro-democracy student movement in Beijing in 1989. It was the first paper to practice tabloid journalism in Hong Kong, and quickly became the most popular and influential newspaper in the city.

Its inaugural editorial, titled “Apple Daily: we belong to Hong Kong”, stated:

We want to be a newspaper for Hongkongers. […] Are we not afraid of the changes 1997 could bring about? We are, but we are not willing to be daunted by fear. We are not willing to be beclouded by pessimism. Positively and optimistically, we will face the future, for we are Hongkongers!

Despite its tabloid-style approach, in its 26 years of operation, the paper continually lived up to its promise of being critical of the government authorities.

After the mass rally against the national security legislation in 2003, many major property developers in Hong Kong stopped advertising in the newspaper due to pressure from Beijing. In 2013, three major banks in Hong Kong also pulled their advertising, reportedly because of political pressure from Beijing.

However, the media corporation withstood the political pressure, thanks to the support of subscriptions from half a million pro-democracy Hongkongers.

Beijing’s pressure on the city’s media sector began escalating following the anti-China extradition protests in 2019. Apple Daily soon became the only print newspaper to uphold a critical stance.

As journalist Yuen Chan highlighted on Twitter, on July 1, 2020, the date the Beijing-imposed national security law was enacted in Hong Kong, all other newspapers ran a political advertisement welcoming the legislation on their front pages. But Apple Daily's front-page headline was “The enactment of draconian law signifies the end of Two Systems.”

Crackdown timeline

Beijing became determined to shut down the independent news outlet after the 2019 anti-China extradition protests. Activist tycoon Jimmy Lai was the primary target. With the national security enacted on July 1, Jimmy Lai was arrested on August 10 for alleged collusion with foreign forces, and the headquarters of Apple Daily were raided for the first time.

Lai was released on bail but was arrested again on alleged fraud on December 3. A week later, on December 11, he was charged with conspiring and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security. He was granted bail for a week around Christmas but was denied by the Court of Final Appeal.

On April 16, Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for participating in an authorized assembly in August 2019, while awaiting the court hearing on foreign collusion charges, the maximum penalty for which would be life imprisonment.

Yet, Apple Daily continued to operate without Lai. On May 14, the police froze Lai’s assets, including his shares in Next Digital and all local bank accounts. On May 28, he was handed an additional 14 months in prison for taking part in another unauthorized assembly in October 2019.

Then, two weeks ahead of both the 24th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China and the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party on July 1, Hong Kong security police targeted the five executive staff of the news outlet. As Hong Kong lawyer Senia Ng posted at the time on Twitter:

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