HONG KONG, (AFP):- Hong Kongers queued Thursday for the final edition of the city’s beloved pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily after it was forced to close under a sweeping new national security law, ending a 26-year run of taking on China’s authoritarian leaders.
The sudden death of the popular newspaper is the latest blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms and deepens unease over whether the international finance centre can remain a media hub as China seeks to stamp out dissent.
In the working-class district of Mongkok, hundreds queued through the early hours of Thursday to get their hands on the final edition, some chanting “Apple Daily we will meet again!”
The swansong front page featured the paper’s own journalists waving goodbye to crowds outside its headquarters.
“It’s very shocking,” a 30-year-old woman, who was in the queue and gave her first name as Candy, told AFP.
“Within two weeks, authorities could use this national security law to dismantle a listed company.”
A few hours later, vendors were doing a roaring trade with commuters in Central, the financial heart of the city.
“It is all so sudden,” a student, who gave his first name as Tim, told AFP.
“I think Hong Kong has entered a dark age.”
Hong Kong’s most popular tabloid had long been a thorn in Beijing’s side, with unapologetic support for the city’s pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China’s authoritarian leaders.
Those same leaders used a new security law to bring about its rapid demise.
Owner Jimmy Lai, currently in jail for attending democracy protests, was among the first to be charged under the law after its imposition last year.
But the final chapter was written over the last week when authorities deployed the security law to raid the newsroom, arrest senior executives and freeze its assets.
That last move crippled the paper’s ability to conduct business or pay staff and the news group decided Thursday’s newspaper — a run of one million copies in a city of 7.5 million — would be its last.
Overnight it took down its website, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Some 1,000 people, including 700 journalists, are now out of work.
“Hong Kongers lost a media organisation that dared to speak up and insist on defending the truth,” eight local journalist associations said in a joint statement, as they called on colleagues to dress in black on Thursday.
China imposed its security law on Hong Kong last year after the city was convulsed by huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.
The prosecution of Apple Daily was sparked by articles and columns that allegedly supported international sanctions against China, a view now deemed illegal.
Lai, chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung have all been charged with colluding with foreign forces to undermine China’s national security and remanded into custody.
On Wednesday, Yeung Ching-kee, one of the paper’s top columnists, was arrested on the same charge.
The decision to freeze Apple Daily’s assets also laid bare the sweeping powers now at the disposal of authorities to pursue any company deemed to be a national security threat.
Multiple international media companies have regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business-friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city’s mini-constitution.
But many local and international outlets are questioning whether they have a future there.
Hong Kong has plunged down an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year. Mainland China languishes at 177th out of 180, above only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
China and Hong Kong’s authorities have hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the 2019 demonstrations and said media outlets must not “subvert” the government.
Authorities initially said the law would only target “a tiny minority”.
But it has radically transformed the political and legal landscape of a city that China promised would be able to keep key liberties and autonomy after its 1997 return by Britain.
On Wednesday, the first trial under the new law got under way for a man accused of riding a motorbike into police officers.
His trial is not being heard by a jury, a major departure from Hong Kong’s common law traditions.
His case is unusual because he is the only Hong Konger so far charged under the security law with an explicitly violent act.
More than 60 people have now been charged under the law, including some of the city’s best-known democracy activists, but their offences are related to political views or speech that authorities have declared illegal.
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