‘Hong Kong press freedom is indeed dead’: Journalists lose hope after Apple Daily is forced to close

Two summers ago, in the heat of massive Hong Kong street protests when pro-democracy protesters clashed with police, they were still on the frontlines: enthusiastic young reporters, working for the Apple Daily tabloid.

Day after day, they were tear gas and clubbed. They exchanged insults with police as they broadcast live cellphone footage to citizens mostly behind the protests and angry with the city government.

Apple Daily has become a symbol of the struggle, providing a rambling voice for the pro-democracy movement – alongside celebrity gossip and hard-hitting inquiries into the private affairs of public officials.

“There was a kind of desperation on the part of people,” said Elven Yu Kin-man, reporter for Apple Daily. “They wanted to have a journal to write about their feelings, to express their opinions.”

The tabloid has also become a prime target for Hong Kong rulers and their overlords in Beijing. It was forced to close Thursday after 26 years.

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

“More than furious”

“I am beyond pissed off and depressed,” Yu said in a telephone interview with CBC News, after his last day of reporting for Apple Daily on Wednesday.

Another reporter, who did not want her name used for fear of being arrested, told CBC “at least we fought and showed our dignity.”

WATCH | The closure of the Hong Kong newspaper will have a “chilling effect”, according to the journalists’ union:

Hong Kong newspaper shutdown will have “chilling effect”, journalists’ union say

Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said shutting down pro-democracy Apple Daily may cause other journalists to avoid covering information that could be affected by the new national security law . (Lam Yik / Reuters) 0:21

Hundreds of police descended on the newsroom last week, seizing journalists’ computers and rummaging around offices in what officers described as a “national security investigation”, alleging vague “collusion with A strange country”.

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

The tabloid’s pugnacious founder and owner, mogul Jimmy Lai, is already in jail. He was sentenced this spring to 14 months in prison for participating in illegal gatherings and faces new charges under Beijing’s National Security Act.

But his real offense was probably political. Lai has long been a vocal critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He predicted last May in the New York Times that Beijing “would tire of not only Hong Kong’s free press, but its free people as well.”

He also warned his team that being a reporter in Hong Kong was “dangerous work”.

“We knew we wouldn’t be safe once our boss was targeted,” Yu said. “We were living in a kind of terror and awaiting death. But it’s hard to believe the time is right.”

National security law undermines press freedom

Journalist Yeung Ching-kee was also arrested this week.

Like the rest of the Apple Daily archives, its columns accusing officials of plotting to “strangle” the tabloid are no longer online.

Indeed, much of Hong Kong’s free-wheeling media atmosphere – unique on Chinese soil – is now fading.

Apple Daily employees work in the printing room as the newspaper’s latest edition goes to print in Hong Kong early June 24. The tabloid announced its closure the day before after having frozen its assets by the police. (Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images)

Its traditional freedom of expression has been curtailed by a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing a year ago and increasingly used to muzzle political opponents, despite China’s promises that Hong Kong people would be allowed to retain their freedoms for at least 50 years after the former Briton. The colony came under Chinese rule in 1997.

Critics say the security law is also used to prosecute other officials that lawyers, artists and academics dislike.

A Hong Kong journalism professor who told CBC News that normally it is “against my professional code” to comment anonymously is so afraid of a police visit that she wants to be identified with the pseudonym d ‘Alexia.

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

“The National Security Law appears to be something comprehensive, 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 reporters.

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

Police call the journalists “criminals” and their newsroom a “crime scene,” she said.

And she said the government appears to be keeping the national security law deliberately vague. “Red lines are everywhere,” she said, but no one will define exactly what can and cannot be reported.

A reporter from another media outlet in Hong Kong who wants to be identified only by her last name Chan agrees. “It’s a sign that press freedom in Hong Kong is indeed dead,” she told CBC News in a Skype interview.

“Censorship has already taken place,” she said. “And self-censorship is going to happen because you want to make sure you’re as safe as possible.”

‘The forbidden fruit’

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, a Communist Party ally in Beijing, rejects the accusations.

“Do not try to accuse the Hong Kong authorities of using the National Security Act as a tool to suppress the media or to stifle free speech,” she told reporters during the meeting. ‘a press conference on Tuesday.

Monitors are seen detached from desktops at the Apple Daily Politburo, after being taken as evidence from the newspaper’s newsroom in Hong Kong on June 17, after Hong Kong police arrested the editor and four leaders of the pro-democracy newspaper earlier That day. (Anthony Wallace / AFP via Getty Images)

“Normal journalistic work” is okay, Lam said, but she declined to define what it means.

“I think media friends have the ability to understand what kind of activity endangers national security,” she said. “It’s fine to criticize the Hong Kong government, but if there is any intention or organization of activities to incite or overthrow the government, that is another thing.”

As the latest edition of Apple Daily hit the streets on Thursday, crowds of Hong Kong people lined up to buy the paper. Instead of the usual print run of 80,000 copies, a million copies were sold in a matter of hours. Customers said they wanted what is called the “forbidden fruit” of the land.

“Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city”

In Canada, readers like Albert Chan lament the loss of the “spirit and soul” of the democratic movement and of a key source of information from a critical perspective.

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

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

“The closure of Apple Daily is the formal declaration that 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 are concerned that this may also be restricted, as is the case in mainland China.

“The Chinese media will take control of the mass media and Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. The Chinese Communist Party is taking over,” he said.

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