MAE SOT, THALANDE – Hong Kong is a city in flux and Beijing wants no one to complain.
After the anti-government protests two years ago, the Chinese central government imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong, banning things like secession and foreign collusion, as loosely defined by the government.
A vast crackdown ensued, with the arrest of dozens of activists and former lawmakers.
The broad scope and vagueness of the security law has raised concerns about censorship and press freedom. But for Apple Daily, considered Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper, these have been concerns for some time.
Founded in 1995 by media mogul Jimmy Lai, Apple Daily is a tabloid newspaper that initially dealt with entertainment and crime and became known for its colorful images and sensational headlines.
Several years later, Apple Daily started reporting on politics. But unlike other city newspapers, he came across as a harsh critic of Beijing. The aggressive attitude of the newspaper was costly; advertising revenue fell as cautious sponsors – banking giants HSBC and Standard Charter among them – withdrew.
Last August, Lai, 73, one of Hong Kong’s main pro-democracy leaders, was arrested under the Security Act on charges of foreign collusion. Dozens of policemen in blue shirts raided the Apple Daily desks.
Lai was eventually charged and is now awaiting trial in prison for other offenses related to his activism.
Hong Kong authorities recently froze Lai’s local assets, adding further concern over the survival of his media conglomerate, Next Digital. And last month Apple Daily The Taiwanese subsidiary has decided to stop its print edition amid falling advertising revenues.
Mark Simon, who said he represented Next Digital’s largest shareholder (Lai), told VOA via a message that Taiwan was facing “cuts”, but “Hong Kong continues to do very well” .
Last September, Lai held 71% of the company’s shares, but Hong Kong authorities stripped him of his voting rights, Reuters reported.
In May, Lai was sentenced to 14 months in prison for his role in organizing a protest in October 2019. On the day of his guilty plea, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange stopped trading in Next Digital shares. The next day, when trading resumed, the company’s shares jumped 330%.
Next Digital released a statement last week saying that without Lai’s assets, the company would have sufficient working capital for at least 16 months.
There is a provocative mood among supporters to keep the publication alive.
Hong Kong people have invested in Apple Daily stock since Lai’s arrest. But the journalists working for the operation are under no illusions.
A senior reporter, who asked to be identified only as Lee for fear of retaliation, told VOA the newspaper faced constant rumors on social media. A recent rumor claimed that all Apple Daily journalists are reportedly arrested on July 1.
“Some of our colleagues were quite worried about this,” Lee said. “Ryan [Law Wai-kwong, the Apple Daily editor-in-chief] told us we can handle it, keep working, don’t worry. ”
Citing the National Security Law and criticism from pro-Beijing state media, Lee said Apple Daily is in a “political fight”. The security law, under which authorities claim jurisdiction all over the world, has made reporting on China more difficult.
“We know the red line, but we don’t know where it is,” Lee said. “We used to write ‘Wuhan virus’, but now we use the word ‘pandemic’ instead.
“We all know Apple Daily will be closed in the future, maybe a year, two years, ”Lee said.
A former reporter who also requested anonymity told VOA that the targeting of China Apple Daily was one of the reasons she left the newspaper.
As for morale, she said the atmosphere in the office was “gloomy” and some staff were losing motivation. The expected increases have not happened in the past two years. Bonuses have been offered and salaries have been paid on time, but that hasn’t stopped “gradual resignations” in recent months, she said.
Many in the business believe Apple Daily has “no hope” in the news industry, she said. “The government froze the assets of Jimmy Lai and said our CEO [Cheung Kim Hung] cannot help with financial activities because he is on bail. Some bankers have been warned [not] to manage their financial statements, ”she said.
The shadow of economic challenges is the prospect that Hong Kong will adopt a “fake news” law.
“Everyone in Apple Daily knows there is a ‘deadline’ and everyone is preparing for it, “the former reporter said.” They are preparing for it every day. You never know when the police will break into the office again. ”
Under pressure from Beijing, Radio Television Hong Kong – the city’s only public broadcaster – saw TV shows deleted for alleged bias and journalists sacked while Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam received a segment televised.
Keith Richburg, professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong and chairman of the Foreign Correspondents Club Hong Kong, said any media that questions the government will ultimately be targeted.
“Anything that seems to criticize the government or the National Security Law or the electoral changes imposed on Hong Kong from above, whoever criticizes these things, they seem to be pursuing him,” Richburg told VOA. “It’s troubling.”