HONG KONG – The end of Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper came slowly, then suddenly.
The Apple Daily published its final issue Thursday, after a year of increasingly stringent restrictions from Beijing and a week of police raiding their offices, arresting senior editors and freezing their financial accounts.
Thousands of people across town joined on Thursday morning to receive one last copy of the tabloid, a boisterous bastion of the pro-democracy movement during its 26-year life and a symbol of its dwindling hopes of an abrupt death by a sweeping one national security law.
Hong Kongers braved torrential rains to emotionally bid farewell to a newspaper that had long been a thorn in Beijing’s side and whose final circulation of 1 million had sold out at kiosks across the city.
The closure was the latest blow to the city’s freedom and a new cause for concern over the future of free speech in the global financial and media hub as Beijing cracks down on dissent.
Apple Daily has been a hub for entertainment, celebrity gossip, and news for many Hong Kong residents during the city’s decades of transformation from British colony to semi-autonomous Chinese territory. While its tabloid style attracted some criticism, the publication’s political research and analysis – with a clearly anti-Beijing stance – received praise and support.
With many waiting in line shortly after midnight on Thursday, some fought back tears.
A 27-year-old attorney who sought anonymity for fear of retaliation told NBC News that Apple Daily was a “staple newspaper” in her growing household.
“But at some point, buying an Apple Daily was more than just picking up the newspaper,” she said as she queued up until 4am on Argyle Street in busy central Hong Kong. “It became an opportunity to participate in a wider movement and show support for a greater ideal.”
“Knowing that Apple Daily is being forced to close is a sign that these ideals may be corroded in our city,” she added.
Although there is still pro-democracy media on the Internet, it was the only printed newspaper of its kind in town.
But when Beijing tightened its grip in 2019 after massive months of protests, it chose Apple Daily as its destination.
The newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested last year and charged with national security violations. While in detention, he was sentenced to 20 months for attending illegal gatherings.
Several reporters resigned after Lai’s arrest, fearing for their safety. Those who chose to stay were aware of the risk.
“We have mentally prepared ourselves that we might be arrested, but we still want to stay and do our job. We want to go further and let the public know what happens, ”said Chan, a senior reporter at Apple Daily who requested that her first name be withheld for her safety, in an interview this week.
“We are not afraid, but we feel deep sadness and indignation.”
The police searched the newspaper once last year and did so again last week. They said they had evidence that articles she published played a “crucial role” in a conspiracy with overseas to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong.
The embattled city leader Carrie Lam defended the arrests and raid at a press conference on Tuesday.
“What we have to do is neither a news agency problem nor a news reporting problem. It is a suspicious act of endangering national security, ”she said. “So our action does not attack the freedom of the press.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “all rights and freedoms, including freedom of the media, cannot go beyond the bottom line of national security.”
And the Communist Party-backed Global Times said in an editorial Thursday that press freedom would remain in Hong Kong, and resisted criticism from officials in Europe and US lawmakers of the fate of the Apple Daily.
However, activists and experts argue that the newspaper’s silence is a heavy blow to press freedom in an area that was once touted as a haven from mainland restrictions.
“The enforced closure of Apple Daily marks the blackest day for media freedom in Hong Kong’s recent history,” said Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director.
Benedict Rogers, chairman and co-founder of the rights group Hong Kong Watch, said this will be “not the last” incident of its kind.
“Forcing the closure of the only remaining pro-democracy mass vote is symbolic,” said Rogers, who also contributed regularly to the publication. “I fear if things continue on this current path, Hong Kong will become like another mainland city under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which means that there is no freedom of the press.”
Tsui Lokman, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that watching events was like watching a patient die.
“Apple Daily wasn’t just another news organization. It was the loudest and most critical news agency out there, ”said Tsui.
“This is a decisive blow to freedom of the press, but not the end. There are still good people, good organizations trying to make good journalism. But it’s a lot harder now than it was before. Everyone will now be careful not to touch any invisible lines because it is not even clear what the lines are. “
Speaking to the newsroom on an industrial lot near the city’s waterfront, Chan said some of her colleagues had spent part of the past few days shredding notes and changing passwords to protect sources.
“I’m frustrated, angry, and sad,” said Chan. “I sometimes wonder if I should leave Hong Kong, but I don’t want to go. I have to witness and record history. I have to record the dwindling freedom of the press. “
Glacier Kwong, a Hamburg-based columnist for Apple Daily, said the newspaper’s writers and contributors had come together over the past few days to support one another.
“Everyone is upset because Apple Daily represents the vibrant civil society that once existed in Hong Kong,” said Kwong.
Late Wednesday, supporters gathered outside the publication’s dimly lit office building, their chants echoing in unison as the crowd waved their cellphone lights in the air to aid staff inside.
Chan said that her colleagues had only one goal: to finish their final issue.
“I know that a lot of people will imagine that we are sad and that we cry a lot, or that the office is surrounded by ominous feelings,” she said. “But the truth is, we’re fine.”
Late on Wednesday, a notification from the Apple Daily mobile app appeared on subscribers’ screens. The content of the newspaper was no longer accessible after midnight, it said. Soon, articles, photos, and videos were collectively disappearing from the outlet’s social media pages. Not long after that, their social media accounts were completely removed.
“Apple Daily would like to thank all of our readers, subscribers, advertisers and Hong Kong residents for their continued support,” the notification read.
“Good luck and goodbye.”