'Press freedom in Hong Kong is effectively dead': Journalists lose hope after Apple Daily forced to close

Two summers ago, in the heat of Hong Kong's massive street demonstrations when pro-democracy protesters faced off against police, journalists from the opposition Apple Daily were always on the front lines. This week, they say the national security law those protesters were fighting against was used to shut down their newspaper.

Opposition newspaper forced to shut down after China seizes $2.3-million US in assets, arrests owner, staff

Apple Daily journalists hold freshly-printed copies of the newspaper's last edition while acknowledging supporters gathered outside their office in Hong Kong early on June 24, 2021. The pro-democracy tabloid was forced to close after 26 years under a sweeping new national security law from China's government. (Daniel Suen/AFP via Getty Images)

Two summers ago, in the heat of Hong Kong's massive street demonstrations when pro-democracy protesters faced off against police, they were always on the front lines: eager young reporters, working for the tabloid Apple Daily.

Day after day, they were tear-gassed and clubbed. They traded insults with police as they beamed out live mobile phone images to citizens overwhelmingly behind the protests and angry with the city's government.

Apple Daily became a symbol of the struggle, offering a scrappy voice for the pro-democracy movement — alongside celebrity gossip and hard hitting investigations into the private affairs of officials. 

"There was a kind of desperation from the people," said Elven Yu Kin-man, a journalist for Apple Daily. "They wanted to have a newspaper to write about their feelings, to air their opinions."

The tabloid also became a prime target for Hong Kong's leaders and their overlords in Beijing. It was forced to shut down on Thursday after 26 years.

Supporters greet an employee of the Apple Daily newspaper outside the media company's office building in Hong Kong in the early hours of Thursday, shortly after the 26-year-old newspaper went to print for the last time. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

'More than furious'

"I am more than furious, and depressed," said Yu in a telephone interview with CBC News, after his last day reporting for Apple Daily on Wednesday.

Another journalist, who did not want her name used for fear of arrest, told CBC "at least we fought and showed our dignity."

WATCH | Closure of Hong Kong newspaper will have 'chilling effect,' says journalists' union:

Closure of Hong Kong newspaper will have 'chilling effect,' says journalists' union

2 years ago
Duration 0:21
Featured VideoRonson Chan, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, says the closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper may prompt other journalists to avoid reporting on news that be could be affected by the new national security law. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

Hundreds of police descended on the newsroom last week, seizing reporters' computers and rifling through desks as part of what officers described as a "national security investigation", alleging vague "collusion with a foreign country."

Several editors were arrested and $2.3-million US in assets were frozen, making it impossible for the presses to keep running.

The tabloid's pugnacious founder and owner, tycoon Jimmy Lai, is already in prison. He was sentenced this spring to 14 months in jail for taking part in illegal assemblies and faces more charges under Beijing's sweeping national security law. 

But his real offence was likely political. Lai has long been a vocal critic of China's Communist Party. He predicted last May in the New York Times that Beijing "would grow tired not only of Hong Kong's free press but also of its free people."

He also warned his staff that being a journalist in Hong Kong is "a dangerous job."

"We knew we were not going to be safe once our boss was targeted," said Yu. "We were living in a kind of terror and waiting for a death. But it is hard to believe the time has come."

National security law undermines press freedom

Journalist Yeung Ching-kee was also arrested this week.

Like the rest of Apple Daily's archive, his columns accusing officials of plotting to "strangle" the tabloid are no longer online. 

Indeed, much of Hong Kong's freewheeling media atmosphere — unique on Chinese soil — is now being erased.

Apple Daily employees work in the printing room as the last edition of the newspaper is printed in Hong Kong early on June 24. The tabloid announced its closure the previous day after having its assets frozen by the police. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

Its traditional free speech has been curtailed by a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing a year ago and increasingly used to muzzle political opponents, despite promises from China that Hong Kongers would be allowed to keep their freedoms for at least 50 years after the former British colony came under Chinese rule in 1997.

Critics say the security law is also being used to go after others officials dislike, from lawyers, to artists and academics.

A Hong Kong journalism professor who told CBC News that normally it's "against my professional code" to comment anonymously, is so afraid of a visit from police that she wants to be identified with the pseudonym Alexia. 

She thinks the closure of a critical voice like Apple Daily signals the end of press freedom in the city.

"The national security law appears to be something all encompassing, unfamiliar to Hong Kong in every way," she said in a text exchange with CBC News. "It sends a message to everyone in Hong Kong," especially journalists.

Apple Daily employees work in the printing room packaging the last edition of the newspaper. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

The police refer to journalists as "criminals" and their newsroom as a "crime scene," she said.

And she said, the government seems to be keeping the national security law deliberately vague. "The red lines are everywhere," she said, but no one will define exactly what can and cannot be reported.

A reporter for another media outlet in Hong Kong who wants to be identified only by her last name Chan agrees. "This is a sign that press freedom in Hong Kong is effectively dead," she told CBC News in a Skype interview.

"Censorship has already been happening," she said. "And self-censorship is going to happen because you want to make sure you're as safe as possible."

'Forbidden fruit'

Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam, an ally of the Communist Party in Beijing, rejects the accusations.

"Don't try to accuse Hong Kong authorities for using the national security law as a tool to suppress media or to stifle the freedom of expression," she told journalists at a news conference on Tuesday.

Monitors are seen detached from desktop computers at the Apple Daily political desk, after they were taken away as evidence from the paper's newsroom in Hong Kong on June 17, after Hong Kong police arrested the chief editor and four executives of the pro-democracy newspaper earlier that day. (Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images)

"Normal journalistic work" is acceptable, Lam said, but she refused to define what that means.

"I believe media friends have the ability to grasp what kind of activities endanger national security," she said. "It is fine to criticize the Hong Kong government, but if there is an intent or organizing of activities to incite or subvert the government, that is another thing."

As the last edition of Apple Daily hit the streets Thursday, crowds of Hong Kongers lined up to buy the newspaper. Instead of the usual press run of 80,000, a million copies sold out within hours. Customers said they wanted what is being called the territory's "forbidden fruit."

'Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city'

In Canada, readers like Albert Chan are lamenting the loss of "mind and soul" of the democratic movement and a key source of information from a critical perspective.

Chan spent 25 years as an opposition member of Hong Kong's legislature and an organizer of many pro-democracy protests. He now lives in British Columbia.

People queue for the Apple Daily newspaper to be delivered in Mong Kok, Hong Kong early on June 24. (Bertha Wang/AFP via Getty Images)

"The closing of Apple Daily, that is the formal declaration there is no more free press, and no more free Hong Kong," he said. 

Hong Kong has open access to the internet but Chan and others fear that will also be curtailed, as it is in mainland China.

"The Chinese media is going to take over the mass media and Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. The Chinese Communist Party is taking over," he said.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.