Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, shut down online at midnight on Wednesday and printed its final edition on Thursday, in a blow to media freedom in the territory.
Across Hong Kong, people lined up early Thursday to buy the last print edition of the last remaining pro-democracy newspaper.
By 8:30 a.m., Apply Daily’s final edition of 1 million copies was sold out across most of the city’s newsstands.
The Apple Daily management said that “in view of staff members’ safety”, it had decided “to cease operation immediately after midnight” – making Thursday’s publication the final printed edition.
This after Hong Kong authorities raided its offices last week and blocked the publication from accessing its financial assets under the city’s controversial national security law.
Police arrested the paper’s top five executives during the raids, including editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, and chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, who were later charged, accused of colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security.
Apple Daily has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, with its unapologetic support for the city’s pro-democracy movement and had become a leading critic of the Hong Kong and Chinese leadership.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the paper’s closure was a “chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong”.
The digital version of the 26-year old paper will no longer be updated after midnight.
A separate announcement by publisher Next Digital thanked the readers for their “loyal support” as well as its journalists, staff and advertisers.
The tabloid has long been a beacon of media freedom in the Chinese-speaking world, and is widely supported by political dissidents in Hong Kong.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said media freedoms in Hong Kong are respected, but are not absolute.
Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s government, accused the paper of orchestrating a political stunt in its decision to shut down.
“People around the world probably will accuse the Hong Kong government of forcing Apple Daily to close down. But the fact of the matter is, they don’t need to,” he told the BBC.
As night fell, supporters of the paper gathered outside its office, and lit their phone flashlights as a show of solidarity. They were also heard chanting “add oil,” an expression that was used during the mass protests in 2019.
The closure comes after sustained pressure on the paper from the authorities.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who has long been a critic of the Chinese Communist Party, is already in jail on a string of charges.
Last Thursday, some 500 police officers raided the publication’s newsroom, saying its reports had breached the city’s new national security law, which makes undermining the government a criminal offence.
The arrests struck fear in employees at the paper and a number quit the publication soon after.
An editorial staff member at the paper described the feeling of unease as “having a knife over your head”. “If you don’t leave by yourself, you may be held criminally responsible,” she told BBC Chinese.
Police had accused the newspaper of publishing more than 30 articles calling on countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland China since 2019.
They also arrested the editor-in-chief and four other executives at their homes and froze HK$18m (US$2.3m; £1.64m) of assets owned by three companies linked to Apple Daily – Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD internet Limited.
The paper then said it only had enough cash to continue normal operations for “several weeks”.
On Wednesday, a 55-year-old man, identified as an Apple Daily columnist, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to collude with a foreign country or foreign forces, local media reports said. (Source: BBC/The Independent)