HONG KONG, Jun 23 (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s most vocal pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, said it will publish its latest issue on Thursday, after a stormy year in which it was raided by police and its tycoon owner. other officials were arrested under a new national security law.
The closure of the popular tabloid, which mixes pro-democracy views with celebrity gossip and investigations into who is in power, marks the end of an era for media freedom in the Chinese-ruled city, critics say.
“Thank you to all readers, subscribers, advertising customers 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.
Apple Daily’s support for democratic rights and freedoms has made it a thorn in Beijing’s back since owner Jimmy Lai, a self-made tycoon who was smuggled from mainland China to Hong Kong on a fishing boat at age 12 , started it in 1995.
This has shaken the Chinese-language media landscape in the region and has become a champion of democracy on the fringes of Communist China. His demise leaves only a handful of small online outlets on that side of politics, including Stand News and Citizen News.
Unions from Citizen News and six other media groups said they would wear black on Thursday in protest against what they described as “the government’s coup against press freedom.” Citizen News and Stand News management could not be contacted for comments outside office hours.
Though sometimes considered in bad taste by some of its critics, supporters defended the Apple Daily as a beacon of media freedom in the Chinese-speaking world. It is read by dissidents and a more liberal Chinese diaspora – repeatedly challenging Beijing’s authoritarianism.
Lai, whose assets were frozen, has been imprisoned since December on charges of participating in unauthorized assemblies stemming from pro-democracy protests.
Some human rights groups, media organizations and Western governments criticized the action against the newspaper.
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“This will put a lot of pressure on everyone who writes reports or editorials,” said Ronson Chan, head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “We just don’t know what the red line is.”
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that criticism of the attack on the newspaper was an attempt to “beautify” acts that jeopardize national security. Chinese authorities denounced the criticisms as interference.
Hong Kong and mainland officials have repeatedly said that media freedoms are respected, but not absolute.
The Apple Daily, which is published by Next Digital and employs hundreds of journalists, said in its online article that the decision to close was “based on employee safety and workforce considerations.”
Since being beaten by police, the newspaper has suffered massive layoffs and entire departments have had to close.
Apple Daily and Next Digital management could not be reached for further comment.
In an interview with Reuters, an aide to Lai said on Monday that the newspaper would close “in a matter of days” as authorities froze the company’s assets, leaving it unable to pay employees or operate.
About 200 police officers stormed the newspaper’s newsroom in August of last year, when Lai was arrested on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces, and again last week, by 500 officers, when another five executives were arrested.
On both occasions, the paper said it had increased its circulation to 500,000 the next day from the usual 80,000, and residents of the city of 7.5 million lined up at newsstands to buy it and show their anger at the crackdown.
Apple Daily, whose online version will no longer be updated, said it expected to print one million copies by Thursday.
“The arrests of Apple Daily employees, the seizure of journalistic materials and the freezing of their assets will send a shiver down the spine of every media operating in Hong Kong,” said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra.
The police action was seen as the most direct attack on Hong Kong’s liberal media since Beijing regained control of the city in 1997.
Hong Kong officials said the actions against the Apple Daily were not aimed at the media industry or press freedom.
The security law imposed on the city last year was Beijing’s first major move to put Hong Kong on a more authoritarian path.
Hong Kong leader Lam and other pro-Beijing officials said the country had restored stability after months of often violent pro-democracy protests.
The Taiwanese arm of Apple Daily said it will continue to publish online due to its independent finances.
The Apple Daily has come under increasing pressure since Lai was arrested last year under security legislation.
Police last week froze assets of companies linked to the newspaper and arrested five executives, effectively choking off its operations. On Wednesday, police arrested a columnist on suspicion of conspiring to conspire with foreign forces.
Authorities said dozens of articles in the Apple Daily may have violated the security law, the first instance in which authorities aim to report the media under the law.
Next Digital was kept afloat with loans from Lai. In May, Reuters exclusively reported that the Hong Kong security chief had sent letters to HSBC (HSBA.L) and Citibank (C.N) branches threatening up to seven years in prison for any dealings in the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
A handful of Beijing supporters celebrated the newspaper’s demise with champagne and a “Fake News” banner in front of their headquarters.