A year after Apple Daily closed, what is left of the free press in Hong Kong? | Hong Kong

aThe former headquarters of pple Daily is located in a dusty industrial complex in a remote area in southeast Hong Kong. A year ago today, the press left one million copies of the pro-democracy newspaper for the last time since its launch in 1995.

Once the bustling newsroom that was considered the voice of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, today the building is shrouded in eerie silence, with weeds growing, gates chained shut and security booths empty. Police declined to respond to a request for comment on whether the site was a crime scene. Beside the entrance to the former headquarters, graffiti in red reads: “Give me my freedom back.”

Over the course of 26 years, a newspaper known for its impressive reporting style has become a leading voice in support of the pro-democracy movement, setting it apart from many other outlets.

A journalist at her computer seen from behind with two fluorescent yellow Chinese banners in the foreground, one with an umbrella.
Apple Daily News Desk. One slogan on the sign is against extradition and the other referring to the yellow umbrella protests says, “I want universal suffrage.” Photography: Liao Zhongren/Zuma/Rex

This accelerated after 1997, when sovereignty of the territory was handed over from Britain to China, says Professor Francis Lee, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “People who supported the pro-democracy movement can see that Apple Daily has become more important,” he says.

The authorities’ move against Apple Daily came shortly after new national security legislation was passed in June 2020. Their vague but broad definition, national security laws prohibit acts of separatism, sabotage, terrorism and “collusion with outside and outside forces,” with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for those found condemn them.

Last year, these laws were used against several news outlets, in an industry-wide crackdown that left an estimated 1,000 journalists and media workers out of work and had a chilling effect on press freedom in Hong Kong.

After the introduction of security laws, the police raided Apple Daily twice and in August 2020 Lai was arrested. “I was watching my boss handcuffed, the police around him – I was furious,” said Norman Choi, who was the editor of the articles at the time.

“I remember some colleagues yelling things like ‘take care of yourself,'” he recalls. “Some colleagues were still doing their work and they recorded the whole process.”

The following year, the company’s funds were finally frozen in June 2021, leading to the newspaper’s closure and liquidation.

A bundle of newspapers is placed on a table
A newsagent arranging copies of the Apple Daily in 2020. Jamie Lay has now been incarcerated for over 18 months. Photo: Yan Chao/AFP/Getty

Now, even though the newspaper no longer appears on newsstands, seven Apple Daily executives remain behind bars. Media mogul Jamie Lai, who founded Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital, has been in detention for more than 18 months.

Six other executives, including Next Digital CEO Chung Kim Hong, Apple Daily co-publisher Chan Pui-man, and its latest editor-in-chief, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, have all been held in pre-trial detention for more. . From 11 months.

All have been denied bail and jointly face two counts under the National Security Act of “conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or foreign elements,” and “conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce discord publications” under the Era Crimes Act. colonial. Lay also faces fraud charges.

The Apple Daily’s demise was quickly followed by the closure of other prominent local media outlets, in a change that left an estimated 1,000 journalists and media workers out of work, and had a chilling effect on press freedom in Hong Kong.

Stand News, an online publication that surged in popularity during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, shut down after police froze its HK$61m (£6m) assets in December 2021. Chung Bui Koen, its former editor at the Prime Minister and his successor, accused the prime minister and his successor Patrick Lam later “conspired to publish inflammatory publications” and they have been detained since last December.

Citizen News also halted operations in January due to safety concerns for its employees.

A man on the balcony raises newspapers in front of a large crowd below, many of them photojournalists
An Apple Daily journalist holds fresh prints of the latest edition as supporters gather outside the newspaper’s office on June 24. Photo: Daniel Swain/AFP/Getty

Press freedom has gone through “a clear and rapid decline” in recent years, Lee says He warns that the fear of being targeted by the authorities can Silencing interviewees and other sources of information.

“If society as a whole is afraid to speak up [to the media] He says… You can’t produce news.

Since 2019, the Hong Kong Journalists Association has come under heavy pressure from the pro-Beijing media and the government, which has launched an investigation into the union’s finances and use of social media.

A group of protesters holding placards in front of their faces
Supporters of journalist Choi Yok Ling, also known as Bao Choi, protested in front of a Hong Kong court last year. She was convicted of making false statements in an investigation into an attack on anti-government protesters. Photo: Kin Cheung/AP

Meanwhile, there was a row among 2,355 members of the city’s foreign correspondents’ club, who recently debated whether it was a duty to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong despite the rising risks.

Conflicting interests were public at a club meeting in May, when some affiliate members – including members from the business and industry worlds – opposed a non-binding proposal from journalists who demanded the club “speak out against threats to press freedom in Hong Kong”, saying the club was not a venue for advocacy. political.

This followed the board’s decision in April to suspend the Human Rights Press Awards after 25 years.

American journalist Timothy McLaughlin, who resigned from the club’s press freedom committee, says canceling the award amounts to self-censorship and is an insult to journalists who have taken real risks in their work. He warns that the club could turn into a tool for the authorities to “whitewash the damage done to Hong Kong’s media” if they continue to “self-censor and acquiesce”.

However, despite the risks, there are increasing efforts across the island to keep the spirit of press freedom alive.

In May, in an old apartment building in Kowloon, a group of former reporters scrambled to get their new bookstore ready for their first visitors, channeling the frantic energy of their former lives as news reporters race to meet the deadline.

Two men in front of bookshelves looking at the camera
Chris Lau, left, and Som Wan Wah at the Have A Nice Stay bookstore in Hong Kong last month. Photo: Chan Long Hee/The Guardian

After 10 years in the media, co-founder Chris Lau became unemployed when his former news outlet closed in late 2021.

“At first we thought of staying at [news] industry, but there were no suitable jobs,” he says. Instead, Lau and four former journalists decided to create a bookstore called Have a Nice Stay, which would also be a meeting place for people to exchange ideas.

Now, as visitors enter, they are greeted by two front pages framed in the newspaper: on the left, the first issue of Apple Daily, published June 20, 1995; Right, the edition of the South China Morning Post that marked Hong Kong’s transition from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997.

Two front pages of newspapers on a library wall
Commemoration of key events in Hong Kong’s modern history in two newspapers at Have a Nice Stay Library. Photo: Chan Long Hee/The Guardian

The Library of Books is an attempt to give a boost to journalists facing growing hostility and inspire the next generation of young reporters to continue the fight for press freedom.

In recent months, a new batch of independent media outlets have also taken root in the city, including The Witness, a Chinese-only website focused on courts and legal reporting.

After losing his job at Stand News, President of the Hong Kong Journalists Association Ronson Chan has joined Channel C HK, an online media that produces video content that has gained nearly 230,000 followers on YouTube since its launch last July.

While it may not offer the same kind of political journalism that Apple Daily or Stand News did, Chan still sees it as a valid way to voice her concerns about the socially disadvantaged in Hong Kong.

“We deal with a lot of livelihood issues, and it’s not less about politics…it’s very ‘normal’,” Chan says. Survival is his top priority so he tries not to provoke the authorities. “This is the most practical way for me to retain my journalistic identity.”

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