Inside Apple Daily, a Pro-Democracy Hong Kong Newspaper Under Assault

Journalists published their last articles, shredded notes, and bid farewell to the whirling printing presses in what appears to be Apple Daily’s final days.

Jun 22 2021, 1:17pm

Update: A day after this story was first published, Apple Daily said it would cease print and digital operations by June 24.

As reports of Apple Daily’s potential demise swirled last week, the responsibility of breaking the news to readers fell on the shoulders of Chan, a 39-year-old senior reporter at the pro-democracy newspaper loathed by Beijing. 

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“This is the worst of times in Hong Kong,” Chan typed on his laptop from the canteen of the newspaper’s headquarters, as hundreds of police officers raided the newsroom a few floors below him after arresting the newspaper’s chief editor and four other executives

Chan, who requested the use of only his last name due to legal concerns, wanted to say this was also the best of times—a reference to the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But he was stumped: there was nothing uplifting to write about what was unfolding before him. The message went on to describe a sense of helplessness as the newspaper came under the full weight of the national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year, although Chan ended it on a defiant note: Apple Daily would “fight until the end.”

The end may come faster than many had expected—for both the pro-democracy newspaper and, perhaps, Hong Kong’s reputation as the only haven of free speech on Chinese soil.

The next day, the 26-year-old newspaper said it could well stop printing after it was accused of threatening national security by publishing articles calling for sanctions against China. With its bank accounts frozen, Apple Daily could soon find itself unable to pay its reporters and be forced to cease operation.

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On Monday, some journalists handed in their resignation or started taking indefinite leave, after an internal memo said the paper could become history on Friday if the government did not unfreeze its assets. At least three section heads and all video editors have resigned, according to NOW TV.

That night, Apple Daily’s daily live newscast aired its last episode, in which the anchor thanked viewers and called on other journalists to carry on their work. The next day, the paper’s English edition and the business section stopped updating. 

Inside the newsroom, journalists prepared to bid goodbye to the paper, packing up personal belongings and publishing what they believed were their last news reports.

One journalist took their pet tortoise home, and so many people wanted to destroy their notes and documents that a line was formed in front of a paper shredder in the office. The machine broke down after spitting out more than a dozen bags of shredded paper, a feature writer told VICE World News.

A paper shredder broke down after spitting out more than a dozen bags of shredded paper. Photo courtesy of Apple Daily journalist

“It is not that we want to end this. It is the regime that wants to put an end to this.”

“We have no idea when the last day will come,” Chan told VICE World News. “We may suddenly be told that tomorrow will be the last day. It is not that we want to end this. It is the regime that wants to put an end to this.” 

This is an outcome that Beijing had longed to see after the paper emerged as one of its peskiest critics since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. 

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At the time, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would enjoy a wide range of civil liberties—like press freedom—unavailable to mainland China for at least 50 years, a distinction that helped turn Hong Kong into a thriving international financial center and gave rise to its vibrant press culture despite rapid economic assimilation. 

But the forceful closure of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy paper could blur the very distinction under which Hong Kong has prospered.

Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom advocacy group, said the raid on Apple Daily showed the Hong Kong government would “do anything in their power to silence one of the last independent media outlets and symbols of press freedom in Hong Kong.” The U.S. government has also condemned what it calls a “selective” and “politically motivated” crackdown. 

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam said the actions against Apple Daily had nothing to do with press freedom, and warned the public against “beautifying” acts that endanger national security. 

A crackdown in the making

Apple Daily was founded in 1995 by businessman Jimmy Lai, a vocal critic of the ruling Communist Party. It offers everything from serious political news and financial analyses to juicy celebrity gossip, travel tips, and food reviews. 

While its sensationalistic, populist tone has come under criticism, the paper has won a large following and become a staple in Hong Kong people’s political, business, and entertainment life. 

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The paper takes an unapologetically critical stance against the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. It questions government policies and focuses on uncovering dirt and the wrongdoings of pro-Beijing officials. Its front pages regularly call on people to join pro-democracy marches.

While Apple Daily has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, the attacks on it intensified after massive pro-democracy protests broke out in 2019. Authorities have accused the paper of fanning hatred toward China and supporting the anti-government unrest with the backing of foreign forces. 

Lai, the paper’s founder, himself often joined protests calling for greater democracy. In 2014, he was inadvertently captured in a cover photo on TIME magazine choking on tear gas as police sought to disperse demonstrators demanding freer leadership elections.

In December, Lai was charged under a national security law imposed to crack down on the pro-democracy movement. The building of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, was raided for the first time, although no journalists were arrested. Lai was accused of calling for foreign sanctions and helping activists wanted by the Hong Kong authorities escape to Taiwan. He has been jailed since December, when he was denied bail, and is currently serving a prison term for taking part in unauthorized assemblies.

A stuffed Pepe the Frog, a symbol of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, is left on a journalist's desk on Monday night. Photo courtesy of Apple Daily journalist

It was an ominous sign for Apple Daily and Hong Kong’s once-vibrant media industry. In newsrooms across Hong Kong, the national security law and Lai’s arrest fueled self-censorship, according to a survey commissioned by the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. Reporters said they started avoiding writing articles that could be seen as actively pushing an anti-Beijing agenda. At Apple Daily, some stopped using their bylines to protect themselves as well as sources. 

One Apple Daily reporter told VICE World News that he would ask interviewees to tone down their criticisms of the Communist Party if they came across as too harsh. During the 2019 protests, many journalists at the paper put up banners and figurines around their cubicles as a show of solidarity, but some of them took down the decorations after the security law was enacted in June last year.

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Even before the arrests last week of the newsroom’s leaders, some Apple Daily employees had quit in fear of further retaliation by the authorities.

“Everyone has always known that Apple Daily would not last for too long,” said a former journalist at Apple Daily’s local news team, who was among more than a dozen reporters and editors who resigned last month after rumors started flying about the possibility of journalists being arrested for the political stories they wrote in the past.

“No one can be 100 percent sure if it is safe to be in Hong Kong as a former Apple Daily employee.”

“The problem was when the deadline was and when the authorities would take action. It had been just a matter of time,” the former employee told VICE World News. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was worried about the legal risk of discussing his work at the paper. 

“No one can be 100 percent sure if it is safe to be in Hong Kong as a former Apple Daily employee,” the journalist said. “The worst thing that could happen is when I wake up one day, someone knocks on the door and then arrests me.” 

After the Thursday arrests, police have refused to disclose which articles published on Apple Daily were deemed criminal. Daisy Li, a former Apple Daily journalist who founded the online outlet Citizen News, said the “red lines” on publishing in Hong Kong had expanded into a “red sea,” the local broadcaster RTHK reported. 

The last days

This week, the once-bustling newsroom is filled with signs suggesting the paper’s imminent death. 

The writer in her early 30s, who declined to be named for fear of being punished for voicing support for Apple Daily, said she went to see the printing presses for the first time after midnight on Monday. Dozens of other journalists, including former employees, came back to bid goodbye to their old newsroom.

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She burst into crying while hugging her colleagues. 

Apple Daily has allowed me to work with people who hold the same values as me, and write what we want to write,” she said. “After this we would go our own ways, and would not be seeing each other every day.” 

These could be the last issues of the 26-year-old newspaper. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE / AFP

Kan Yin, a financial journalist at Apple Daily based in the United Kingdom, told VICE World News that he felt like watching his home being destroyed in the past few days. “I always knew it would shut down, but I didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” he said. “It was quite upsetting. I’m losing something very important.” 

Earlier this year, Kan Yin moved to London because he was disillusioned with the shrinking freedoms in Hong Kong, he said. He compared it to how his father escaped the Cultural Revolution in China by moving to the then-British colony.

He has no plan to return to the city, worried his past work at Apple Daily could get him in trouble in his home city. 

Most journalists who spoke to VICE World News said they did not expect to find another job in the news industry. Some were concerned that potential employers would turn them down after seeing “Apple Daily” on their resumes.

Chan, the senior reporter, said he canceled some interviews because these features would unlikely make it to the paper before the company closes down.

“We will be sad, but we don’t need to give up our mission,” Chan said. “It will be a new low for Hong Kong that it no longer has Apple Daily, but people’s demand for truth will not disappear because of it. 

“If we ourselves cannot carry on, there will be new people joining. This is how things are at this time.”

Copies of Apple Daily have sold out across the city since the Thursday raid, as fans showed their support for the paper and snapped up what could be its final editions. “The fate of Apple will be revealed on Friday at the latest,” read the newspaper’s Tuesday headline. But if you ask those who left—Apple Daily or Hong Kong—the writing is already on the wall.

Follow Viola Zhou and Alan Wong on Twitter.

Tagged:

china, Press Freedom, worldnews

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