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Blow to media freedom as curtain falls on Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily

The demise of Apple Daily is a loss not only to the people of Hong Kong but also to people all over the world

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Yesterday, 24 June 2021 will go down in Hong Kong’s media annals as the day the embattled pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily halted operations.

The tabloid said in a statement it would print its last edition, and its website would no longer be updated.

Hundreds of Apple Daily readers queued for hours to get the last edition of the tabloid. One professor of journalism described the closure of Apple Daily as “death by a thousand cuts”. The tabloid’s departure from Hong Kong’s media panorama will be felt profoundly in the city-state.

In the years following Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city-state continued to enjoy considerable autonomy. But it soon became apparent that China was speeding up its influence in Hong Kong. Curtailing media freedom was one way, and the prime target was unquestionably Apple Daily.

Media tycoon and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai founded Apple Daily on 20 June 1995. The tabloid covered everything from celebrity gossip to investigations that held those in power accountable for their actions.

Apple was the first tabloid in Hong Kong to successfully combine sensationalist entertainment with unyielding news. The paper was launched with a big splash, when it broke the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong cartel rules by charging two dollars instead of five.

Apple Daily catapulted to the limelight to become the second most circulated paper in the city. Known for its critical stance towards China, it quickly became a target for Chinese authorities bent on cracking down on dissent in Hong Kong.

Lai, a self-made millionaire who fled to Hong Kong from mainland China when he was 12, founded the paper in the wake of China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

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Since its inception, Apple Daily has been no stranger to controversies encompassing media freedom. In 1999, officers from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) raided the paper in an incident that sparked public outrage, after a reporter was accused of bribing police officers for information. Apple Daily challenged the action in court, and the case made it to the Court of Final Appeal before the newspaper’s arguments were rejected.

Lai,73, is currently serving a 20-month jail term for alleged foreign collusion and involvement in mass protests that swept Hong Kong in 2019. A devout Catholic, he once remarked, “The Lord is suffering with me. When you lift yourself above your self-interest, you find meaning in life. You are doing the right thing which is so wonderful. It has changed my life into a different thing.”

On 17 June, Apple Daily announced that chief executive officer Cheung Kim-hung, chief operating officer Chow Tat-kuen, deputy chief editor Chan Puiman, and chief executive editor Cheung Chi-wai had been arrested at their homes.

Media organisations and governments slammed the raid of the Apple Daily newsroom by about 500 officers, who seized journalistic material on national security grounds.

On 28 May, Reporters Without Borders submitted an urgent appeal to UN special rapporteurs Irene Khan, Mary Lawlor and Diego Garcia-Sayan to take all measures necessary to secure the release of Lai, who won the 2020 RSF Press Freedom Award.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced it would honour the incarcerated Lai with the 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. Lai is also slated to be honoured at CPJ’s 2021 International Press Freedom Awards on 18 November 2021.

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“Jimmy Lai is not just a champion of a free press but he is a press freedom warrior,” CPJ said in a statement. “He fights for the right of his Apple News organisation to publish freely, even as China and its backers in Hong Kong use every tool to quash them.”

A CPJ release noted Lai had become a powerful symbol of the struggle to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as China’s Communist Party exerts ever greater control over the territory. In prison and denied bail, Lai faces charges that could keep him in jail for the rest of his life.

Adding to the chorus of denunciations were the World Association of News Publishers and the World Editors Forum. Both condemned the arrests of Apple Daily editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four of its directors as Hong Kong’s national security police target the media company and Lai.

The Vienna-based International Press Institute also deplored the raid on Apple Daily’s office and the arrest of the newspaper’s executives under the National Security Law. IPI deputy director Scott Griffen said the outrageous raid “confirms what we already knew: China’s so-called national security law was imposed as a tool to abolish fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, chief among them press freedom”.

In 2020, Apple Daily won the Hong Kong Human Rights Press Award for its coverage of Liu Xia, a poet, artist and human rights defender, who is the wife of the late Liu Xiaobo. A prominent Chinese human rights activist, he died while serving an 11-year sentence for subversion. During his fourth prison term, Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”.

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Hong Kong once had a global reputation as being a bastion for free expression and media freedom, but that is no longer the case. Hong Kong has fallen from 18th place in 2002 to 80th in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index. China ranked 177th out of the 180 of all the countries surveyed.

The demise of Apple Daily is a loss not only to the people of Hong Kong but also to people all over the world – including Malaysians – who value press freedom. Malaysians, in particular, know all too well how curbs on press freedom can hurt freedom of expression and democratic principles.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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