Apple Daily vows to carry on and publish as usual,” read a headline in Friday’s edition of Apple Daily, the outspoken tabloid newspaper that is at the centre of attention in Hong Kong. On Thursday morning, some 200 Hong Kong police officers raided the newspaper’s headquarters and arrested five of its top editors and management, in what is being seen by many journalists in China’s Special Administration Region (SAR) as the most significant action targeting a Hong Kong media outlet since the 1997 handover, and one that may well herald a darker future for the once free-wheeling Hong Kong press.
Apple Daily has occupied a curious position on the spectrum of Hong Kong’s vibrant media. The tabloid was founded in 1995 by businessman Jimmy Lai, who came to then British-ruled Hong Kong in 1959, aged 12, started out as a child labourer in textile factories, and rose to found the clothing brand Giordano when he was 22.
He entered the media business and set up Next Media (later renamed Next Digital), publishing a daily newspaper and a weekly magazine. Both were hardly the standard-bearers of good journalism, popular for their tabloid-style coverage. One of Mr. Lai’s magazines in 2006 caused an uproar for using a hidden camera and publishing photos of popular singer Gillian Chung when she was undressing backstage at a concert.
The newspaper’s coverage wasn’t only on matters salacious. It also garnered a following for its strong political stand. Mr. Lai was a firm supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and an outspoken critic of Beijing.
In 2019, when millions of Hongkongers took to the streets over many months to protest a new extradition Bill that would allow suspects to be repatriated to the mainland to stand trial, seen by many as the latest and most significant dilution of the “one country, two systems” model that had ensured freedoms in Hong Kong, including that of the press, Mr. Lai and his newspaper became among the strongest backers of the protest movement.
The demands of the protesters evolved to calls for universal suffrage and to allow Hongkongers to vote for the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive, who is chosen by an election committee dominated by pro-Beijing appointees. The newspaper’s popularity and reputation grew with the protest movement. An annual survey on “public evaluation on media credibility”, conducted in 2019 by the City University of Hong Kong, ranked it as the third most credible newspaper, after the South China Morning Post and Ming Pao. It ranked far higher than two most prominent pro-Beijing papers, Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po.
The paper was also critical of the new national security law passed by Beijing in June 2020 for its broad definitions of what constituted secession and collusion with the “foreign forces” blamed by Beijing for the 2019 protests.
The law paved the way for tightening the noose on a newspaper that had grown to become a thorn in the side of both the HKSAR government and Beijing, and was cited to justify a raid on Apple Daily in August last year when Mr. Lai was arrested. Around 50 pro-democracy political figures in Hong Kong would also be detained under the new law in January.
After the five arrests and the raid on Thursday, the paper’s fate is now “hanging in the balance”, reported the South China Morning Post, noting that beyond the arrests of its top leadership, a freeze on its assets “could send it over the edge financially”.
Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu insisted the operation “was not targeting the press at large but only going after a publication that had used ‘news coverage as a tool’ to harm national security,” the Post reported, adding that national security police cited “more than 30 articles calling for sanctions against the city and mainland China” as “evidence of a conspiracy to collude with foreign forces in violation of the national security law”.
That is not, however, the view of most Hong Kong journalists. The national security law, with its broad definitions of crimes, has in their view led to a wider chilling effect. “Journalists are more cautious than ever when they criticise the HKSAR Government and the Central Government, and managements have put more pressure on them,” said the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s 2020 press freedom report. Of 367 responding journalists, 91% said press freedom in Hong Kong had worsened compared to the previous year. The survey said there was “doubt or hesitation when criticising HK Government and the Central Government”, and a lack of “adequacy of legislative safeguards for journalists’ free access to information”.
The paper, however, said it is undeterred, even live-streaming the raid. It said it would print 500,000 copies on Friday, five times more than its usual circulation. Some news stands, reported the Hong Kong Free Press, said copies of Friday’s edition were sold out within two hours after going up on the stands at midnight.