Hong Kong’s sole remaining anti-Bejing newspaper is publishing its last edition, forced to shut down after five editors and executives were arrested and millions of dollars in its assets were frozen as part of China's crackdown on dissent.

A supporter gestures while holding the final edition of Apple Daily in Hong Kong, China on June 24, 2021.
A supporter gestures while holding the final edition of Apple Daily in Hong Kong, China on June 24, 2021. (Lam Yik / Reuters)

Hong Kong's most vocally critical newspaper Apple Daily has said it is printing its last edition after a stormy year in which it was raided by police and its tycoon owner and other staff were arrested under a new national security law.

The closure of the popular tabloid on Thursday, which mixes democracy views with celebrity gossip and investigations of those in power, marks the end of an era for media freedom in the Chinese-ruled city, critics say.

"Thank you to all readers, subscribers, ad clients and Hong Kongers for 26 years of immense love and support. Here we say goodbye, take care of yourselves," Apple Daily said in an online article.

The board of directors of Apple Daily parent company Next Media said in a statement on Wednesday that the print and online editions will cease due to “the current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong.”

The silencing of a prominent voice is the latest sign of China's determination to exert greater control over the city long known for its freedoms after huge anti-government protests there in 2019 shook the government. 

Since then, Beijing has imposed a strict national security law – used in the arrests of the newspaper employees – and revamped Hong Kong's election laws to keep opposition voices out of the legislature.

A Lai legacy

Apple Daily was founded by tycoon Jimmy Lai in 1995 – just two years before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China – and initially was a tabloid known for its celebrity gossip. But 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 criticised 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 anti-China 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.

READ MORE: Several arrested as Hong Kong police raid Apple Daily newspaper

Editors detained over foreign sanctions conspiracy

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.

The widely expected move to close the newspaper followed last week’s arrests and crucially the freezing of $2.3 million of the paper’s assets. 

Its 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 paper also said it made the decision to close out of concern for its employees’ safety.

The editors and executives were detained on suspicion of colluding with foreigners to endanger national security. 

 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 the paper, 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. Lai, its founder, is facing charges under the national security law for foreign collusion and is currently serving a prison sentence for his involvement in the 2019 protests.

The move against the paper drew criticism from the US, the EU and Britain.

German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Adebahr said the closure represents 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.” 

The law, imposed last year, criminalises 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 on Wednesday to charges of terrorism and inciting secession by driving a motorbike into police officers during a 2019 rally while carrying a flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” 

Tong's trial will set the tone for how Hong Kong handles national security offences. 

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.

READ MORE: Hong Kong begins first trial under national security law with no jury

Source: TRTWorld and agencies