What remains of Hong Kong’s free press a year after the Apple Daily shutdown

What remains of Hong Kong's free press a year after the Apple Daily shutdown

Tech Highlights:

  • Once a busy newsroom that was considered the voice of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, today the building is shrouded in an eerie silence, with weeds growing, gates chained shut and empty security booths. Police declined to respond to a request for comment on whether the site was considered a crime scene. Beside the former headquarters’ boarded-up entrance, graffiti in red says: “Give me back my freedom.” Over the course of 26 years, a paper once known for its sensationalist reporting style had become a leading voice of support for the pro-democracy movement, setting it apart from many other outlets.

  • Can press freedom endure in the region with the newspaper’s publisher and senior editors imprisoned, other pro-democracy media outlets closed, and 1,000 writers without jobs? The previous headquarters of Apple Daily are located in a desolate industrial complex in a remote region of southeast Hong Kong. 1 million copies of the pro-democracy journal, which was first published in 1995, were printed for the final time on this day one year ago.

A journalist at her computer seen from behind with two fluorescent-yellow banners in Chinese in the foreground, one with an umbrella
The news desk at Apple Daily. One slogan on the banner opposes the extradition law and the other, referencing the Yellow Umbrella protests, says: ‘I want universal suffrage.’ Photograph: Liau Chung-ren/Zuma/Rex
This accelerated after 1997, when sovereignty of the territory was handed from Britain to China, says Prof Francis Lee, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication. “People who supported the pro-democracy movement could see Apple Daily as becoming more important,” he says.

Following the introduction of the security laws, Apple Daily was raided twice by police and in August 2020 Lai was arrested. “Watching my boss handcuffed, with police surrounding him – I was angry,” said Norman Choi, who was features editor at the time. “I recall that some colleagues shouted out things like ‘take care’,” he recalled. “Some colleagues were still doing their job and recorded the whole process.” The following year, the company’s funds were finally frozen in June 2021, leading to the newspaper’s inevitable closure and liquidation. A newspaper seller arranges copies of Apple Daily in 2020. Jimmy Lai has now been detained for more than 18 months. Photograph: Yan Zhao/AFP/Getty.

The authorities’ move against Apple Daily came soon after new national security legislation was passed in June 2020. Vaguely defined but wide-ranging in scope, the national security laws prohibit acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign and external forces”, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for those found guilty. In the last year these laws have been used against multiple news outlets, in an industry-wide clampdown that has left an estimated 1,000 journalists and media workers out of a job and has had a chilling effect on press freedom in Hong Kong.

Now, even though the newspaper no longer appears on newsstands, seven Apple Daily executives remain behind bars. The media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who founded Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital, has been in custody for more than 18 months. Six other executives, including Next Digital’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, Apple Daily’s associate publisher Chan Pui-man, and its last editor-in-chief, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, have all been held in pre-trial detention for more than 11 months.

All were denied bail and jointly face two charges under the national security legislation of “conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements”, and “conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications” under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. Lai also faces fraud charges. Apple Daily’s demise was swiftly followed by the closure of other prominent local media outlets, in a shake-up that left an estimated 1,000 journalists and media workers out of work, and has had a chilling effect on press freedom in Hong Kong.

Stand News, an online publication that rose in popularity during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, shut down after its HK$61m (£6m) assets were frozen by the police in December 2021. Chung Pui-kuen, its former editor-in-chief, and his successor, Patrick Lam, were later charged with “conspiracy to publish seditious publications” and have been in custody since last December.

“We do a lot of livelihood issues, less on policy … it is very ‘laymen’,” says Chan says. His top priority is survival so he tries not to provoke the authorities. “This is the most practical way for me to retain my journalist identity.” Sign up for a different view with our Global Dispatch newsletter – a roundup of our top stories from around the world, recommended reads, and thoughts from our team on key development and human rights issues, delivered to your inbox every two weeks:

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