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A year on from Apple Daily’s closure, what’s left of Hong Kong’s free press?

Apple Daily’s former headquarters reside in a dusty industrial complex in a far-off area of south-eastern Hong Kong. A year ago today, 1m copies of the pro-democracy newspaper left the printing press for the last time since its launch in 1995.

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

Over the course of 26 years, a paper once known for its sensationalist reporting style had become a leading voice of support for the pro-democracy movement, setting it apart from many other outlets.

A journalist at her computer seen from behind with two fluorescent-yellow banners in Chinese in the foreground, one with an umbrella
The news desk at Apple Daily. One slogan on the banner opposes the extradition law and the other, referencing the Yellow Umbrella protests, says: ‘I want universal suffrage.’ Photograph: Liau Chung-ren/Zuma/Rex

This accelerated after 1997, when sovereignty of the territory was handed from Britain to China, says Prof Francis Lee, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Journalism and Communication. “People who supported the pro-democracy movement could see Apple Daily as becoming more important,” he says.

The authorities’ move against Apple Daily came soon after new national security legislation was passed in June 2020. Vaguely defined but wide-ranging in scope, the national security laws prohibit acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with foreign and external forces”, with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for those found guilty.

In the last year these laws have been used against multiple news outlets, in an industry-wide clampdown that has left an estimated 1,000 journalists and media workers out of a job and has had a chilling effect on press freedom in Hong Kong.

Following the introduction of the security laws, Apple Daily was raided twice by police and in August 2020 Lai was arrested. “Watching my boss handcuffed, with police surrounding him – I was angry,” said Norman Choi, who was features editor at the time.

“I recall that some colleagues shouted out things like ‘take care’,” he recalled. “Some colleagues were still doing their job and recorded the whole process.”

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

A bundle of newspapers are put on a counter
A newspaper seller arranges copies of Apple Daily in 2020. Jimmy Lai has now been detained for more than 18 months. Photograph: Yan Zhao/AFP/Getty

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

Six other executives, including Next Digital’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, Apple Daily’s associate publisher Chan Pui-man, and its last editor-in-chief, Ryan Law Wai-kwong, have all been held in pre-trial detention for more than 11 months.

All were denied bail and jointly face two charges under the national security legislation of “conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign countries or external elements”, and “conspiracy to print, publish, sell, offer for sale, distribute, display and/or reproduce seditious publications” under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. Lai also faces fraud charges.

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

Stand News, an online publication that rose in popularity during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, shut down after its HK$61m (£6m) assets were frozen by the police in December 2021. Chung Pui-kuen, its former editor-in-chief, and his successor, Patrick Lam, were later charged with “conspiracy to publish seditious publications” and have been in custody since last December.

Citizen News also ceased operations in January over concerns for the safety of its employees.

A man on a balcony holds up newspapers in front of a large crowd below, many of whom are press photographers
An Apple Daily journalist holds up freshly printed copies of the last edition as supporters gathered outside the newspaper’s office on 24 June. Photograph: Daniel Suen/AFP/Getty

Press freedom has gone through an “obvious and swift regression” in recent years, says Lee, who warns that the fear of being targeted by the authorities could silence interviewees and other sources of information.

“If the society at large is afraid to speak [to the media] … you cannot produce news,” he says.

Since 2019, the Hong Kong Journalists Association has been under heightened pressure from 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 hold signs in front of their faces
Supporters of the journalist Choy Yuk-ling, also known as Bao Choy, protest outside a court in Hong Kong last year. She was found guilty of making false statements in an investigation into an attack on anti-government protesters. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Meanwhile, there has been discord among the 2,355 members of the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, who recently debated whether it was duty-bound to uphold press freedom in Hong Kong despite the growing risks.

Clashing interests were in the open during a club meeting in May, when some associate members – including those from the world of business and industry – opposed a non-binding motion from journalists calling on the club to “speak out publicly against threats to press freedom in Hong Kong”, saying the club was no place for political advocacy.

This came after a board decision in April to suspend the human rights press awards after 25 years.

The American journalist Timothy McLaughlin, who resigned from the club’s press freedom committee, says cancelling the award amounts to self-censorship and was an insult to journalists who faced real risks in their work. The club could turn into a tool for authorities “to whitewash the damage being done to the media in Hong Kong” should it continue to “self-censor and cower”, he warns.

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

In May, in an old tenement building in Kowloon, a group of former reporters scrambled to get their new bookshop ready for their first visitors, channelling the frenetic energy of their former lives as news journalists racing to meet a deadline.

Two men in front of book shelves look at the camera
Kris Lau, left, and Sum Wan-wah at the Have A Nice Stay bookshop in Hong Kong last month. Photograph: Chan Long-hei/The Guardian

After 10 years in the media, one of the founders Kris Lau became jobless when his previous news outlet closed in late 2021.

“At first we considered staying in the [news] industry, but there were no suitable posts,” he says. Instead, Lau and four other former journalists decided to set up a bookshop, called Have a Nice Stay, that will also serve as a meeting place for people to exchange ideas.

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

Two newspaper front pages on the wall of a bookshop
Key events in Hong Kong’s recent history commemorated in two newspapers at Have a Nice Stay bookshop. Photograph: Chan Long-hei/The Guardian

The bookshop is an attempt to give journalists facing increasingly hostility a morale boost and inspire the next generation of young reporters to keep fighting for press freedom.

In recent months, a new crop of independent media has also taken root in the city, including the Witness, an online-only Chinese-language website focusing on court and legal reporting.

After losing his job at Stand News, Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Ronson Chan joined Channel C HK, an online media outlet producing video content that has gained close to 230,000 followers on YouTube since launching last July.

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

“We do a lot of livelihood issues, less on policy … it is very ‘laymen’,” says Chan says. His top priority is survival so he tries not to provoke the authorities. “This is the most practical way for me to retain my journalist identity.”

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