Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, drew curtains on its operations on Wednesday, 23 June, signalling a threat to press freedom in the city.
The pro-democracy mouthpiece was left with no choice after authorities froze the company’s assets and arrested executives, citing a breach of the national security law imposed by Beijing in 2020.
The closure of one of the most widely read papers in Hong Kong is credited to China's crackdown on Hong Kong, the pro-democracy protests and the arrest of the founder of the daily, Jimmy Lai.
First, What Makes Hong Kong Different?
For over 150 years, Hong Kong was colonised by the British after China ceded the island to Britain, ending the first opium war in 1842. Over the years, it grew to be a city where migrants took refuge to flee persecution and find better economic prospects than mainland China.
In the 1980s, when China and Britain engaged in talks over the future of Hong Kong, they agreed that China would gain control over Hong Kong once again, albeit under the “one country, two systems” rule.
This rule granted a special status to Hong Kong, allowing it to exercise autonomy to a great degree and have its own legal system, besides enjoying rights like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
However, Hong Kong started witnessing a shift in its power structure over the years as press and academic freedom started eroding, and China’s interference in the city’s affairs grew – for example, in legal rulings that disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers.
The city has also witnessed protests – unlike mainland China – going back as early as 1966 when the Star Ferry Company hiked its fares, leading to massive demonstrations against it.
In 2019, protesters took to the streets to rally against plans to enter Hong Kong into an extradition agreement with China – leading to the bill being rolled back.
The National Security Law
The violence that ensued in course of the 2019 protests amplified the pro-democracy movement and fuelled anti-China rhetoric, displeasing Beijing. This is why China found a loophole to bypass Hong Kong's legislature and impose a national security law by decree – a law that Hong Kong never had.
Under the “one country, two systems” rule, Hong Kong was expected to enforce its own national security law – listed in Article 23 of the Basic Law – but it was never enacted due to its unpopularity.
On 30 June, China introduced the law in Hong Kong and kept the text a secret from the public.
According to Amnesty International, “Under this new law ‘secession’, ‘subversion’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘collusion with foreign forces’ incur maximum penalties of life imprisonment. But these offences are so broadly defined that they can easily become catch-all offences used in politically motivated prosecutions with potentially heavy penalties.”
What's more, right after the law came into effect, authorities used it to crackdown on dissenters, with as many as 53 pro-democracy activists, former legislators, social workers and academics being arrested on 6 January 2021.
Under the law, authorities in China and Hong Kong are granted expansive powers to have a say in the operation of schools, social organisations, media, and the internet in the city.
Fearing control over foreign correspondents, some media organisations, including The New York Times, shifted their journalists from Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the local media fell prey to the clutches of the government. The Hong Kong Police in 2020 said journalists would only be recognised and acknowledged if they worked with companies registered with the government or well-known international news organisations.
What Led to the Closure of Apple Daily?
Among the pro-democracy newspapers in Hong Kong, Apple Daily was the largest, with a wide readership.
Started on 20 January 1995 by entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily was initially a tabloid that focussed on celebrity gossip and sensationalism, before becoming a mouthpiece for dissent, known for its critical view of the Chinese government.
In December 2020, Lai was arrested under the national security law for allegedly using the Next Digital's headquarters illegally. Next Digital is the media company that published Apple Daily.
Lai, who is openly critical of the Chinese leadership, was accused of “colluding with foreign forces” under the national security Law, reported BBC.
He has been languishing in prison for 20 months for two protest-related cases and faces additional charges under the national security law, which could result in a lifetime prison sentence, reported The New York Times.
The Apple Daily newsroom was raided a second time last week, and five top executives and editors were arrested, journalists’ computers forfeited and company assets frozen.
Unable to pay its employees any further and to protect the journalists who worked for Apple Daily, the widely read newspaper was forced to shut down after 26 years of reporting fearlessly.
With the end of Apple Daily, the extent of press freedom in Hong Kong has further narrowed, leaving no room for criticism and dissent in a city once known for its unique way of life.
(With inputs from BCC, The New York Times)
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