Hong Kong is going through a change, and Beijing doesn’t want anyone to complain.
Two years after the anti-government protests, Beijing implemented a new national security law in Hong Kong that bans “incitement to secession” and “collusion with foreign powers,” and defines the charges broadly.
A full-scale crackdown ensued, with dozens of Hong Kong activists and former legislators arrested.
The broad coverage and ambiguity of the new national security law has raised concerns about content censorship and press freedom. But for Apple Daily, considered one of the last pro-democracy newspapers in Hong Kong, such concerns have been around for some time.
Founded in 1995 by media mogul Jimmy Lai as a gossipy newspaper, Apple Daily initially covered entertainment and crime news and was known for its colorful pictures and sensation-seeking headlines.
A few years later, the Apple Daily began covering politics. But unlike other newspapers in the city, it became a vocal critic of the central government. But the paper’s aggressive posture toward Beijing was costly: Cautious sponsors, including two banking giants, HSBC and Standard Chartered, pulled out, causing its advertising revenue to drop.
Last August, Lai Chi-ying, 73, one of Hong Kong’s prominent pro-democracy leaders, was arrested under the new national security law on charges of colluding with foreign powers. Dozens of police in blue shirts raided the offices of Apple Daily.
Lai Chi-ying was eventually charged. He is currently in custody awaiting trial and faces other charges related to his political activities.
Hong Kong authorities recently froze Lai’s local assets, further fueling concerns about the viability of his Next Digital group. Last month, the Taiwan Apple Daily announced the closure of its paper edition due to declining advertising revenue.
Mark Simon, an aide to Chi-Ying Lai, who represents Next Media’s largest shareholder, told the Voice of America. He told VOA via a text message that Taiwan Apple Daily is facing “cuts” but that “the business in Hong Kong is still doing well.”
As of September last year, Lai Chi-ying held 71 percent of Next Media Group’s shares. But according to Reuters, Hong Kong’s National Security Branch has recently sent a letter to Next Media, prohibiting its majority shareholder, Lai Chi-ying, from exercising, directly or indirectly, his voting rights on any of his shares in the company.
In May this year, Lai Chi-ying was sentenced to 14 months in prison for his involvement in organizing the October 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. On the day he pleaded guilty, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange halted trading in Next Media shares. When trading resumed the next day, the company’s shares soared 330%.
Next Media released a statement last week saying the company had enough working capital to sustain itself for at least 16 months in the absence of Lai’s assets.
Resistance is rife among Lai Chi-ying’s sympathizers, who want to keep the newspaper alive.
Hong Kong people have reportedly been investing in Apple Daily’s stock since Lai’s arrest. But journalists who work for this media outlet are under no illusions.
One senior reporter, who identifies himself only by his surname Li for fear of retaliation, told Voice of America that the paper has had to deal with persistent rumors on social media. A recent rumor claimed that all of the Apple Daily’s reporters would be arrested on July 1 of this year.
“Some of our colleagues were quite worried about it,” Lee said with a nervous laugh, “and Ryan (Law Wai-kwong, Law Wai-kwong, editor-in-chief of Apple Daily) told us that we coped with it, keep working and don’t worry.”
Referring to the new national security law and criticism from some pro-Beijing official media, Lee said the Apple Daily is in the midst of a “political struggle. Under the long arm of the new national security law, authorities claim it has jurisdiction over anywhere in the world, making it increasingly difficult to do China-related reporting.
“We know there are red lines, but we don’t know exactly where the red lines are,” Li said. “We used to use the term ‘Wuhan virus,’ but now we use the term ‘epidemic ‘ as a word.”
Li said, “We all know that the Apple Daily will be shut down sooner or later in the future, maybe in a year, maybe in two years.”
A former Apple Daily reporter, who asked not to be named, told Voice of America that the targeted offensive launched by Chinese authorities against the paper was one of the reasons she resigned from the paper.
Commenting on the morale of the paper’s staff, she said the office atmosphere was “gloomy” and some employees were losing motivation. She said that for the past two years, employees had not received the expected pay raises. Although bonuses were paid and salaries were paid on time, it did not prevent the “gradual resignation” of employees in recent months.
The former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said many at the company believe that Apple Daily has “no hope” in the news industry. “The government has frozen the assets of Lai Chi-ying and has not allowed our CEO (Cheung Kim Hung) to help with any of the company’s financial activities because he is on bail. Some bankers have also been warned by authorities (not to) manage their financial statements,” she said.
Adding to Apple Daily’s economic challenges is the possibility of a chilling “fake news” law being passed in Hong Kong in the future.
“Everyone at Apple Daily knew there was going to be a ‘day of reckoning’ and everyone was preparing for it,” the former employee said. You never know when the police are going to break into the office again.”
Under pressure from Beijing, Hong Kong’s only public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), has already had several television programs axed and journalists fired over allegations of bias. Meanwhile, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been able to launch a dedicated talk show on the station’s channel.
Keith Richburg, a journalism professor at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) and president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCCHK), said any media outlet that dares to question the government will eventually become a target.
“If there is anything that appears to be critical of the government, critical of the national security laws or critical of the electoral reforms imposed on Hong Kong by the central government, if anyone is critical of any of those things, they seem to be pursued,” Rickard told the Voice of America, “and that’s disturbing.”