Curtain falls on Hong Kong tabloid that dared to challenge China

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper became the city’s most popular tabloid by punching up against a particularly powerful entity that brooks little criticism: China’s communist leadership.

Its 26 year reign is now at an end.

Over the last week, Apple Daily’s journalism was declared a threat to China’s national security by Hong Kong authorities and the paper saw its assets frozen — a move that crippled its ability to operate.

Thursday’s edition will be its last, bringing the curtain down on Hong Kong’s most outspoken tabloid.

Caustic criticism of Beijing was baked into the paper’s DNA.

It was founded in 1995 by Jimmy Lai, a billionaire mogul who had fled to the city from the mainland as a penniless child and amassed a fortune selling clothes.

Lai had not been especially political until the events of June 4, 1989, when he and many other Hong Kongers watched China send tanks to crush democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

He became increasingly outspoken — often using especially colourful language to describe China’s leaders — and his clothing brand Giordano soon found itself in trouble with mainland authorities.

So Lai sold up and ploughed the proceeds into a new endeavour — founding a media empire.

– Scandal and sex –

Much like Rupert Murdoch, Lai carved a space out in Hong Kong’s crowded media landscape by being brasher and louder than his rivals, combining often populist right-wing politics with ample lashings of sex, celebrity and scandal.

He also launched a brutal price war and the tactics paid off. In just a few years Apple Daily was printing 400,000 copies a day. Lai also opened up a Taiwan edition.

Much like other print media, its circulation crumbled in recent years — to around 80,000 daily copies for Hong Kong — and Lai had to write cheques to keep the paper afloat.

But it remained an especially loud voice of defiance as local media increasingly began to self-censor and avoid taking on China’s leaders directly.

As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement gathered steam from 2014 onwards, Lai became public enemy number one to Beijing, with state media routinely describing him as a “traitor” and a “black hand”.

Apple Daily’s support for the huge and often violent democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 infuriated Beijing further, as did Lai campaigning for international sanctions and being an avid Donald Trump supporter.

Beijing’s imposition of its national security law last year radically changed the paper’s fortunes.

Lai, 73, was among the first high-profile democracy activists charged under the law.

Then last week police raided the paper’s newsroom, charged two more executives with “colluding with foreign forces” and froze its accounts.

Authorities say their prosecution is based around articles Apple Daily published that supported international sanctions against China, a view now deemed illegal under the security law.

– ‘Blackest day’ –

The paper’s sudden demise is a stark warning to all media outlets on the reach of a new national security law.

“The forced closure of Apple Daily is the blackest day for media freedom in Hong Kong’s recent history,” Amnesty International said Wednesday.

Multiple international media companies, including AFP, have regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city’s mini-constitution.

Many news teams in the city specialise in reporting on China and outlets are now questioning whether they have a future there.

Hong Kong has steadily plunged down an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year. Mainland China languishes 177th out of 180, above only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

The New York Times moved its Asia hub last year to South Korea after the law was enacted, and others have drawn up contingency plans.

Hong Kong’s local media has gradually shifted since the 1997 handover.

It remains far freer and more vibrant than the mainland, where all media is state controlled.

But reporter associations say they increasingly have to self-censor, fearful of incurring Beijing’s wrath or sparking advertising boycotts by mainland companies.

Apple Daily was something of an outlier in that regard, refusing to be cowed and remaining vociferously polarising.

The two most aggressive tabloids left on the scene — Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao — answer to Beijing’s Liaison Office and are staunchly pro-government.

In an interview with AFP almost exactly a year ago, shortly before the law came into force, Lai predicted it would be used to silence his newspaper.

“Whatever we write, whatever we say, can be subversion, can be sedition,” he said.

He brushed off the threat of prison.

“I’m a troublemaker. I came here with nothing, the freedom of this place has given me everything. Maybe it’s time I paid back for that freedom by fighting for it.”

Tears and cheers as Hong Kong’s Apple Daily prints last edition
Hong Kong (AFP) June 23, 2021 – As journalists from Hong Kong’s embattled pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper scrambled to produce their final edition, they didn’t need to go far to find their front page — the news was right outside their doors.

With its confrontational style, caustic commentaries and sometimes tawdry reporting techniques, the city’s most popular tabloid was no stranger to being in the headlines.

So it was perhaps fitting that its final front page after 26 years of operation featured its own journalists waving goodbye to hundreds of supporters on the streets outside.

“Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain: ‘We support Apple Daily’,” the paper’s last headline read.

Apple Daily is the latest Hong Kong institution to be upended by a national security law that Beijing imposed on the city last year to stamp out dissent after huge and often violent democracy protests.

Authorities used the law to freeze its assets and arrest five key executives last week.

Six days later, it folded.

– ‘Complicated feeling’ –

Inside the bustling newsroom on Wednesday evening many staff wept as they put together the last edition. Others gathered for group photos and cheered.

“We’re trying to do the best at the very last moment,” a harried page designer, who gave his surname Kwok, told AFP, as a gaggle of reporters from rival outlets criss-crossed the newsroom documenting a watershed moment for their own embattled industry.

“It’s a complicated feeling,” he added.

One photographer, who declined to be named, said the newsroom was filled with far more employees than usual on its last night, almost like a reunion or a funeral.

“It was a chance to gather all the colleagues together, we made it a historical moment,” he told AFP.

But he said few had much optimism.

“It doesn’t look good for the future of Hong Kong news, press freedom and the news industry,” he added.

Throughout the evening a steadily growing crowd of supporters kept vigil outside.

Many chanted slogans or messages of encouragement and shone mobile phone lights towards the building.

Now and then, those inside would come out onto a balcony and wave, replying with their own mobile phone flash lights.

Transportation worker Alan Tso, 30, said he had been reading Apple Daily for the last 12 years.

He said he sent a box of fresh apples to the company this morning and asked for early leave from work after learning the paper would close.

He pinned a three page hand-written letter to the company’s gates.

“Thank you for standing fast at your posts and reporting news every day for Hong Kongers,” it read.

“Apple Daily stands for the spirit of daring to do what you believe is right,” Tso told AFP. “I won’t buy other newspapers after I lose it.”

– ‘Hong Kong has no future –

The paper’s headquarters is on a remote industrial estate at the far eastern end of Hong Kong.

A 27-year-old woman who gave her first name as Beatrice said she travelled with a friend to be with her favourite paper for its last night.

“I felt like I needed to go. It’s a duty for me to say goodbye,” she said.

A man in a yellow face mask, who gave his surname as Chow, was among four people writing messages on the paper’s main gate.

“I think Hong Kong has no future,” he told AFP.

“We will never have the old Hong Kong again because since the national security law came in all freedom of press, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly has been suppressed by the government.”

Shortly after midnight, the printing presses began rolling and staff came out to give free copies to the crowds outside.

Many in the crowd were weeping. Others chanted democracy slogans and shook the hands of some of the 1,000 employees now out of work.

One Apple Daily photographer, who asked not to be named but said he joined when the paper first opened in 1995, had spent some of the evening watching and shooting the crowds below.

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