HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy paper Apple Daily has announced its closure. The tabloid’s offices were raided last week over allegations that several reports had breached a controversial national security law.
Police detained the chief editor and five other executives, and company-linked assets were frozen.
The publication had become a leading critic of the Hong Kong and Chinese leadership.
Thousands across Hong Kong rushed to get the final edition of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which closed its doors after 26 years.
Overnight, hundreds braved heavy rains, gathering outside its offices where a million copies were being printed.
The publication decided to shut down after its reports were accused of breaching a national security law, leading to a freeze on company assets.
The closure is seen as a blow to press freedom under the pressure of Beijing.
In the early hours of the morning, newsstands across the city saw long snaking queues with people eagerly hoping to pick up the very last copy of the paper. By 10:00 local time, multiple vendors had sold out, according to social media posts.
The final edition was a tribute to its readers with the headline: “Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain”.
“I think it’s the end of an era,” supporter San Tsang told news agency Reuters as she was waiting in line.
“I don’t understand why (Hong Kong) can’t even tolerate a newspaper.”
“I want to support it till the end,” Amma Yeung said. “The newspaper has accompanied society for so many years. After this, we will weather the storm.”
On Wednesday night, just hours after the company announced its closure, supporters of the tabloid had gathered outside its office, even as heavy rain fell.
They lit their phone flashlights as a show of solidarity and shouted support slogans like “add oil” – a popular phrase of encouragement in Hong Kong, which can sometimes be translated to mean “go for it” or “don’t give up”.
In response, Apple Daily staff ducked out of their offices to stand at balconies and windows, waving flashlights and shouting “Thank you Hong Kong” to the crowds outside. Some were seen handing out free copies of the final copy to the supporters on the street.
Reports from within the newsroom on its very last days showed emotional scenes of defiant applause as well tears and confusion.
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.
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.
China introduced the national security law in Hong Kong last year in response to massive pro-democracy protests that swept through the administrative region over the past years.
The law essentially reduced Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and made it easier to punish demonstrators and activists. It criminalises secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces with the maximum sentence being life in prison.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 but with an agreement that certain rights and freedoms should be safeguarded. Critics say the law has fundamentally undermined that agreement. Since the law was enacted in June 2020, more than 100 people have been arrested under its provisions.