Apple Daily, a pro-democracy news outlet, is the biggest casualty yet in Beijing’s campaign against Hong Kong’s once freewheeling news media. Its million-copy final edition sold fast.
HONG KONG — Readers lined up in the rain to buy copies of Apple Daily’s final edition. They rushed to archive its articles online before its website went blank. Other local news outlets plastered their home pages with reports of the publication’s demise, even as editors wondered where the new boundaries lay.
Hours after Apple Daily, one of Hong Kong’s most widely read and independent news outlets, was forced to shut amid mounting government pressure, many in the city were scrambling to preserve what parts of its legacy they could. The paper printed its final edition on Thursday after a raid on its newsroom, the arrest of top editors and the freezing of its bank accounts made it the biggest casualty yet in an aggressive campaign by Beijing against Hong Kong’s once freewheeling news media.
As the paper put its last edition to bed, hundreds of supporters gathered outside its headquarters in the rain, waving cellphone lights and chanting “Support Apple Daily till the end!”
From a balcony, the newspaper’s employees shone their own lights, shouting: “Thank you for your support!” Someone inside the newsroom taped a defiant message to the window that said in bold print: “You can’t kill us all.”
The newspaper said it printed one million copies of Thursday’s edition, about 10 times its regular daily circulation, but even that did not seem enough to meet demand, and many stores were sold out. To many, the rambunctious, often sensational, proudly pro-democracy publication now stood for more than just a newspaper: It was a symbol of the civil liberties that have been lost as Beijing has tightened its grip over the city.
“I am waiting for the memories,” said Jimmy Chan, who runs a liquor store in the Kennedy Town neighborhood of Hong Kong, as he stood in a line that quickly formed at a newsstand that had just received more copies of the paper. “It’s for the memories of the freedom we used to have to say things in Hong Kong.”
On Twitter and Lihkg, a social media platform popular with the city’s activists, readers organized efforts to preserve digital records of the newspaper’s coverage. Some set up spreadsheets to identify articles that they would back up on the Wayback Machine, an online archive. Others took screenshots of stories that held special meaning for them. Academics tried to retain copies for research.
“This is a newspaper with 26 years of history. That’s a lot of memories, a lot of history about Hong Kong,” said Fu King-wa, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s journalism school. He downloaded videos of the antigovernment protests that had rocked Hong Kong in 2019 from the news site’s Facebook page for research. But he was only able to save part of what he intended to keep before they disappeared.
Apple Daily’s final print issue read like a colorful time machine, interspersed with farewell messages to its readers. “Hong Kongers Bid a Pained Farewell in the Rain,” read the top headline on the paper’s front page. Archival photos of Hong Kong’s mass protests filled its pages, as well as samples of award-winning coverage of human rights issues.
The paper also reported on the court hearing of Tong Ying-kit, the first person to be tried under the national security law, which took place on Wednesday. Hours before Apple Daily’s website went dark, it carried a new investigative report on Hong Kong companies that had continued investing in Myanmar after the coup in February.
Now, the newspaper’s social media sites are blank and its home page directs to a new site, goodbye.appledaily.com, telling subscribers that online content will no longer be accessible. “Thank you for supporting Apple Daily,” it says.
In a statement Thursday, President Biden called the end of Apple Daily “a sad day for media freedom.” The newspaper had been “a much-needed bastion of independent journalism in Hong Kong,” he added.
The paper’s closure was prominently covered by news media of various stripes. Stand News, a pro-democracy online news outlet, showed nearly five hours of live footage from inside and outside the Apple Daily newsroom on its last night. On Thursday morning, it posted a 14-minute video that followed three editors and a photographer in the last two days before the paper closed. The journalists recounted the challenges of covering the arrests and court hearings of their colleagues.
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, offered a mixed assessment of Apple Daily’s legacy. “To its fans, it was a defender of freedoms,” it said. “To its foes, it was the defiler of national sovereignty.”
The authorities have accused the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, and its top executives, of coverage that posed a threat to national security, while denying that the investigation would harm press freedom in the city. But Wen Wei Po, a Chinese government-controlled newspaper, was more explicit about Beijing’s intentions, celebrating Apple Daily’s demise and calling it a warning to the rest of the media.
“It is good for Hong Kong that Apple Daily came to a dead end, and it is the beginning of the purification of the Hong Kong media ecology,” the newspaper said in an editorial.
“The lesson of Apple Daily’s self-inflicted demise is profound,” it added. “All media in Hong Kong need to think about their own responsibility, mission, ethics and bottom line.”
In the city’s newsrooms, journalists worried if other publications might be targeted next. A handful of smaller online outlets such as Stand News, Hong Kong Citizen News and Hong Kong Free Press have given voice to the city’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement and pursued investigations exposing the government’s failures.
Some assumed that all news outlets in the city, no matter how assertive or meek, were at risk of being censured under the national security law because of its sweeping scope. The law grants Beijing broad powers to crack down on a variety of vaguely defined political crimes such as separatism and subversion. On Wednesday, the police also arrested on a columnist at Apple Daily as part of the investigation into the paper.
“You know there is a red line, but at the same time you don’t know what that line actually is,” said Daisy Li, the chief editor of Citizen News. Ms. Li had worked for Apple Daily for 18 years before starting Citizen News with other veteran journalists in 2017.
She pointed to the recent remarks by a pro-Beijing politician, Stanley Ng, who criticized HK01 and Cable TV, two mainstream news outlets, as being antigovernment. The law’s power and reach lay in its ambiguities, she noted.
“So we do what we did in the past. We’re doing journalistic work,” she said. “The consequence of that work may cause the government unhappiness, but that’s journalistic work.”
Apple Daily’s forced closure was likely to deepen a chill that had already set over parts of the city’s media. The paper’s overtly antigovernment slant and confrontational posture had provided a buffer of sorts for news outlets that were less aggressive, said Ivan Choy, a political-science professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Some media occupying a central position will now become the most outspoken ones,” he said. “They will worry and have to do some self censorship to not follow the fate of Apple Daily.”
Even as the prospects for media freedom in the city seemed daunting, some reporters said they had to persevere.
“It’s bleak but either you give up, or do what you can,” Choy Yuk-ling, a prominent investigative journalist who was recently convicted of making false statements to obtain public records for a news report that was critical of the police. “Free speech doesn’t fall from the sky. We used to take it for granted but what we can do now is fight for that space under the constraints.”