Media

The Closure of Apple Daily Sounds a Death Knell for Free Speech in Hong Kong

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Tabloids rarely garner praise for their journalistic integrity. Instead, the term is commonly associated with sensationalist and quasi-factual reporting of papers such as The Daily Star or The Sun. Most commonly, the term is used to dismiss a paper or to disparage its content. However, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, despite being a tabloid, has become a symbol of freedom and resistance. It’s a newspaper whose commitment to journalism is second to none across the world.

Since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, newspapers across the territory have been bought up by supporters of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), most strikingly, the prestigious English Language South China Morning Post was purchased by the Alibaba Group in 2016. Beyond increased pro-CCP investment, newspapers in Hong Kong have also struggled with self-censorship and boycotts by advertisers.

Apple Daily was started in the 1990s by billionaire Jimmy Lai. Initially, its pages were filled with celebrity gossip and the paper quickly gained a negative reputation. However, as large-scale anti-extradition protests gripped Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020, Apple Daily became one of the very few publications to support the protest movement.

Jimmy Lai’s paper not only supported the protests but very quickly became a symbol of the struggle. Many protests even consisted of crowds silently reading the paper. Apple Daily’s journalists and photographers risked arrest and injury, documenting the movement with as much detail and honesty as possible. Advertisers pulled support, certain shops refused to sell the paper, and the Hong Kong Government and Police Force consistently threatened, arrested, and intimidated the publication’s workers. 

Despite his international journalism empire and his ability to leave Hong Kong for Taiwan or Britain, Jimmy Lai refused to flee the city or censor his publication. He resisted to the end stating that Hong Kong, “has given me everything. Maybe it’s time I paid back for that freedom by fighting for it”.

Ultimately, Jimmy’s decision has meant he will likely die behind bars. Last year the Chinese government imposed a strict and controversial security law on Hong Kong. The law, which was supposedly designed to stabilise the region, has drastically reduced freedoms afforded to Hong Kongers. For example, Jimmy Lai was arrested and accused of ‘colluding with foreign forces’ due to his decision to begin publishing Apple Daily in the English Language. Jimmy now faces life in prison without a chance of release.

Under overwhelming pressure, Apple Daily continued to hold the regime to account and refused to be silenced. Despite the bold efforts of the staff and directors of Apple Daily, the famed newspaper has now published its final paper. Last week five directors of Apple Daily were arrested, and the companies accounts were all frozen due to charges related to the new security law

Even after this, journalists at the tabloid refused to stop working, despite knowing they would not be paid. However, with no funds for the staff or printing, Apple Daily announced that Saturday the 26th of June would be their last edition. 

Earlierr this week, a writer for the publication was also arrested under the new security law, the remaining directors decided to close shop earlytoo protect staff. Thus, Thursday’s print will be Apple Daily’s last paper. The early hours of Thursday morning saw subdued vigils not only for Apple Daily but for Hong Kong itself. Unsurprisingly, a million copies of Apple Daily’s last print were snapped up before daybreak. Many Hong Kongers queued for hours to show their gratitude to the last printed publication they felt spoke for them.

The tragedy of Apple Daily will no doubt become synonymous with Hong Kong’s decline into authoritarianism. But it is just one part of a broader and worrying picture. 

Recent weeks have seen a new law passed that allows the government to censor any films they deem “a threat to national security”. Before this, law was passed so cinemas and universities could not show certain films after government pressure. The Oscars were not exempt from censorship either, and the ceremony was absent from TV for the first time in decades. In part, this was due to Nomadland director Chloe Zhao’s outspoken contempt for China’s government and partly due to a short documentary about Hong Kong’s protest movement being nominated for Best Documentary (short subject).

Museums have cancelled exhibitions of Ai Weiwei’s work due to his troubled history with the Chinese government. The June 4th Museum in Mong Kok, the only museum in the world dedicated to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, was also closed by government officials. In addition, various radio shows have been forced to cease broadcasting, and RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, previously well regarded for its balanced coverage, has been taken over by government officials and ceased producing balanced content.

Apple Daily’s closure and the above examples highlight just some of the many ways Hong Kong has changed. The coming years will show whether anything will be left of the old Hong Kong. The Stand and Hong Kong Free Press are two outlets that continue to shine a light on the issues facing Hong Kong and its people. Both publications are only available online, but both have become precious resources for those in the city who oppose the government.

A cartoon is being widely shared in Hong Kong stating the government may have buried Apple Daily but that they have forgotten apples have seeds. Apple Daily may be gone, but many still hope the ideas it planted can live on.


Image courtesy of Gerry Popplestone via Flickr.

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