Hong Kong's Apple Daily Cites Staff Safety, Freezing of Assets as Reasons Behind Closure

Hong Kong's only pro-democracy print newspaper Apple Daily has cited concerns for the safety of its staff and the freezing of $2.3 million of the paper's assets as reasons behind its forced closure.

The paper's final edition will be published on Thursday and its parent company Next Media's board of directors said it will stop publishing in print and online because of "the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong."

Although Hong Kong is semi-autonomous, China has increasingly tried to exercise its authority over the city following mass anti-government protests in 2019 and implemented a national security law used to recently arrest five Apple Daily employees.

German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr called the paper's shutdown another "hard blow against press freedom in Hong Kong. And it shows once again how the so-called National Security Law is applied selectively against critical voices."

Entrepreneur and activist Jimmy Lai founded Apple Daily in 1995. Lai is now serving a prison sentence for taking part in the 2019 Hong Kong protests and faces foreign collusion charges under the national security law, the Associated Press reported.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Hong Kong's Apple Daily Newspaper
The daily edition of the Apple Daily newspaper (R, middle row) is seen displayed amongst other local papers outside a convenience store in Hong Kong on June 22, 2021. Apple Daily cites the safety of staff and the freezing of millions in assets as the reasons behind its closure. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

The silencing of a prominent pro-democracy voice is the latest sign of China's determination to exert greater control over the city long known for its freedoms. Since anti-government protests, Beijing revamped Hong Kong's election laws to keep opposition voices out of the legislature.

Apple Daily was founded two years before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China — and initially was a tabloid known for its celebrity gossip. But its founder Lai had also always portrayed the paper as an advocate of Western values and said it should "shine a light on snakes, insects, mice and ants in the dark," according to the paper.

It grew into an outspoken voice for defending Hong Kong's freedoms not found on mainland China, and in recent years has often criticized the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for limiting those freedoms and reneging on a promise to protect them for 50 years after the city's handover to China. While pro-democracy media outlets still exist online, it is the only print newspaper left of its kind in the city.

In a post on Instagram, the paper thanked its readers.

"Even if the ending is not what we want, even if it's difficult to let go, we need to continue living and keep the determination we have shared with Hong Kong people that has remained unchanged over 26 years," Apple Daily wrote.

The paper's announcement coincided with the start of the city's first trial under the year-old national security law that is being closely watched as a barometer of how strictly the courts will interpret the legislation.

Apple Daily's board of directors wrote a few days ago to ask Hong Kong's security bureau to release some of its funds so the company could pay wages — but it's not clear if it got a response.

The editors and executives were detained on suspicion of colluding with foreigners to endanger national security. Police cited more than 30 articles published by the paper as evidence of an alleged conspiracy to encourage foreign nations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China. It was the first time the national security law had been used against journalists for something they had published.

On Wednesday, police also arrested a 55-year-old man on suspicion of foreign collusion to endanger national security, according to Apple Daily, which cited unidentified sources. The paper said the man writes editorials for it under the pseudonym Li Ping.

Apple Daily has in recent years come under increasing scrutiny over its pro-democracy stance.

The move against Apple Daily drew criticism from the U.S., the EU, and Britain.

"The forced closure of (Apple Daily) by Hong Kong authorities is a chilling demonstration of their campaign to silence all opposition voices," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a Twitter post. "It is clearer than ever that the (national security law) is being used to curtail freedom and punish dissent."

The law, imposed last year, criminalizes subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion. Chinese and Hong Kong officials have said the media must abide by the law, and that press freedom cannot be used as a "shield" for illegal activities.

The first person to stand trial under the law, Tong Ying-kit, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges of terrorism and inciting secession by driving a motorcycle into police officers during a 2019 rally while carrying a flag with the slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times." Several officers were knocked over and three were injured.

That slogan was often chanted during the 2019 demonstrations, which began as protests against a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China for trial but burgeoned into broader calls for greater democratic freedoms. China was shaken by the breadth of the protests and responded with tough measures including the national security law, which makes calls for Hong Kong's independence illegal.

Tong's trial will set the tone for how Hong Kong handles national security offenses. So far, more than 100 people have been arrested under the law, with many others fleeing abroad. The result is that it has virtually silenced opposition voices in the city.

A court ruled last month that Tong will stand trial without a jury, a departure from Hong Kong's common law traditions. Under the national security law, a panel of three judges can replace jurors, and the city's leader has the power to designate judges to hear such cases.

The law carries a maximum penalty of life in prison for serious offenses. Tong is on trial at the High Court, where sentences are not capped.

Apple Daily Hong Kong Headquarters
Staff members wave flashlights to their supporters at the Apple Daily headquarters in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper will stop publishing Thursday, following last week's arrest of five editors and executives and the freezing of $2.3 million in assets under the city's one-year-old national security law. Kin Cheung/AP Photo