HONG KONG – The end of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper came slowly, then suddenly.
The Apple Daily published its latest edition Thursday, after a year of ever-tighter restrictions imposed by Beijing and a week in which police raided offices, arrested editors and frozen financial accounts.
Thousands of people lined up across the city Thursday morning for a final copy of the tabloid, a noisy stronghold of the pro-democracy movement throughout its 26 years of life and a symbol of its diminishing hopes for a brutal death in the hands of a radical national security law.
Hong Kong people braved torrential rains to bid emotional farewells to a newspaper that had long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, with its final million-copy edition sold out on the city’s newsstands.
Its closure was the latest setback for the city’s freedom and a further cause of unease over the future of free speech in the global financial and media hub as Beijing clamps down on dissent.
Apple Daily was a go-to source of entertainment, celebrity gossip and news for many Hong Kongers during the city’s decades of transformation from a British colony into a semi-autonomous Chinese territory. While its tabloid style has drawn some criticism, the publication’s political surveys and analysis – with a distinctly anti-Beijing stance – have won it praise and support.
As many lined up just after midnight on Thursday, some held back their tears.
A 27-year-old lawyer who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal told NBC News that Apple Daily was a “grassroots newspaper” in her family growing up.
“But at one point, buying an Apple Daily became more than just picking up your newspaper,” she said, as she stood in line until 4 a.m. on Argyle Street in bustling downtown. Hong Kong. “It has become a way to participate in a larger movement and to show support for a greater ideal.”
“Knowing that Apple Daily is being forced to shut down is a sign that these ideals may be corroding in our city,” she added.
Although pro-democracy media still exist online, it was the only such print newspaper remaining in the city.
But as Beijing tightened its grip after massive protests lasting several months in 2019, it has set itself the target of Apple Daily.
The newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested last year and charged with national security offenses. While in detention, he was sentenced to 20 months for participating in illegal gatherings.
Several journalists resigned after Lai’s arrest, fearing for their safety. Those who chose to stay were well aware of the risk.
“We have mentally prepared for being arrested, but we still want to stay and do our job. We want to keep reporting and telling the public what’s going on, ”said Chan, a senior reporter for Apple Daily who requested that her first name not be released for her safety, in an interview this week.
“We are not afraid, but we feel deep sorrow and deep indignation.”
Police raided the newspaper once last year and did it again last week. They said they had proof that the articles he published played a “crucial role” in a conspiracy with foreign countries to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong.
City leader Carrie Lam defended the arrests and the raid at a press conference on Tuesday.
“What we are dealing with is neither a media issue nor a reporting issue. It is a suspicious act that endangers national security, ”she said. “Our action therefore does not attack the freedom of the press. “
China’s Foreign Ministry said that “all rights and freedoms, including media freedom, cannot go beyond the baseline of national security.”
And the Communist Party-backed Global Times said in an op-ed Thursday that press freedom would remain in Hong Kong, brushing aside criticism from EU officials and US lawmakers over the plight of the Apple Daily.
But activists and pundits argue that the newspaper’s silence represents a blow to press freedom in territory once touted as a safe haven from mainland restrictions.
“The forced shutdown of Apple Daily is the darkest day for media freedom in recent Hong Kong history,” said Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific regional director of Amnesty International.
Benedict Rogers, chairman and co-founder of rights group Hong Kong Watch, said it would “not be the last” such incident.
“Forcing the shutdown of the only remaining mass pro-democracy voice is symbolic,” said Rogers, who was also a regular contributor to the publication. “I fear that if things continue on this current trajectory, Hong Kong will become like another mainland city under the Communist Party of China, which means no freedom of the press.”
Tsui Lokman, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said watching events unfold was like “watching a terminally ill patient die.”
“Apple Daily was not just another news organization. It was the loudest and most critical media organization in the market, ”Tsui said.
“This is a critical blow to freedom of the press, but not the end. There are still good people, good organizations, who are trying to do good journalism. But it’s much more difficult now than before. Everyone will now be careful not to touch any invisible lines, as it is not even clear what the lines are. “
In the newsroom on an industrial lot near the city’s waterfront, Chan said some of his colleagues had spent part of the past few days shredding notes and changing passwords to protect sources.
“I am frustrated, angry and sad,” Chan said. “I sometimes wonder if I should leave Hong Kong, but I don’t want to leave. I must testify and record the story. I have to record how the freedom of the press is disappearing.
Glacier Kwong, an Apple Daily columnist based in Hamburg, Germany, said the paper’s editors and contributors have come together to “support each other” in its final days.
“Everyone is upset because Apple Daily represents the vibrant civil society that once existed in Hong Kong,” Kwong said.
Late Wednesday, supporters gathered outside the publication’s dimly lit office building, their chants echoing in unison as the crowd waved their cell phone lights in the air in a demonstration of support for staff at inside.
Chan said his colleagues have only one agenda: complete their final edit.
“I know a lot of people will imagine us sad and crying a lot, or that the office is surrounded by worrying feelings,” she said. “But the truth is, we’re fine.”
Late Wednesday, a notification from Apple Daily’s mobile app appeared on subscriber screens. Newspaper content would no longer be accessible after midnight, he read. Soon, articles, photos and videos collectively disappeared from the point of sale’s social media pages. Soon after, their social media accounts were deleted entirely.
“Apple Daily would like to thank all of our readers, subscribers, advertisers and Hong Kong people for your continued support,” the notification read.
“Good luck and goodbye.”