On Wednesday morning, the Apple Daily reporter Angel Kwan was at a government press conference for the Hong Kong census when her phone started buzzing with notifications. Six days earlier, hundreds of police had raided her workplace, arrested her bosses and seized dozens of computers. On Monday, the company board had said it would have to shut the paper unless authorities unfroze its finances.
As she stood holding her microphone towards the government official, Kwan did not dare look at her phone and the news it heralded: Apple Daily was shutting down. Today.
‘Resist until the end’: On the ground with Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper – video
“I had the mic and I said, ‘This is a question from Apple Daily’. And then I stopped for a second or two, just thinking: this is my last time saying this.”
Speaking to the Guardian from the Apple Daily office, 24-year-old Kwan’s voice cracks. The reporter joined the ranks of Hong Kong’s most vocal and popular pro-democracy newspaper just a year ago. She had received other job offers, and knew what she was getting into. Beijing had just imposed its controversial national security law (NSL) on the city, and authorities had been cracking down on the media for months.
It was accepted that authorities wanted to close Apple Daily. Rumours swirled that authorities liked the symbolism of getting it done before the centenary celebrations of the Chinese Communist party on 1 July.
“I’d thought about this [scenario] already, and I thought I would stay till the very last, to witness everything and stay with my colleagues,” Kwan says. “I didn’t regret doing that, whatever happens.”
In the early hours of 17 June, five senior Apple Daily executives, including the editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, were arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion, and the newsroom raided. The operation centred around dozens of unspecified articles that authorities say were part of a conspiracy to have foreign governments impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing, in breach of the NSL.
“This is the worst of times in Hong Kong,” Apple Daily wrote to its readers.
Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, arrives at Lai Chi Kok reception centre in a prison van. Photograph: Lam Yik/Reuters
Law and the chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, were charged, as were three related companies. Asset freezes crippled the company. It told staff the paper would probably close and they could resign without notice. After police arrested its lead opinion writer on Wednesday, management pulled the pin that night, citing concerns about manpower and staff safety.
The risk to the paper’s journalists was real. The city’s security chief, John Lee, had told Apple Daily and the rest of the city’s media that they should “cut ties with the suspects” or else they would regret it.
One reporter, who did not want to be named, says he resigned on Tuesday amid rumours of another raid. “I worry the police will see my daily work as something illegal – in their view, not mine,” he said.
His computer had been seized and his wife was pleading for them to leave the city.
“I would like to stay here but Hong Kong has changed a lot, in a way that wouldn’t allow me to stay on as a reporter, because the pressure and the threats I’m facing now is unbearable.”
In the newsroom’s final days, rival outlets shadowed reporters working on their last stories, while colleagues came in to take photos, say goodbyes, and defiantly livestream the printing presses.
“We hadn’t known that it would be our last day,” Kwan says. “We were determined to get the paper done.”
Supporters gathered outside the building. The office in Tseung Kwan O is outside the city and not somewhere people would go unless they lived or worked there, says Kwan, still surprised and touched that people turned up. A Yuen Long restaurant owner, 25 miles away, insisted on delivering food to the team. People hung messages of thanks on the fence, shouted and shone their torchlights through the rain.
“Some of my colleagues were looking out the window and he or she said: don’t look down or you’ll cry,” says Kwan.
“I was like, what the fuck, we’re reporters – I must look! So I did look, and I did cry.”
Staff lined the windows and balconies, shining their lights. A small group walked down to the crowds, one man climbing the fence to hand out copies of their final edition, hot off the press. The staff saw out the rest of the night together inside the newsroom, as 1m papers hit the streets.
Hongkongers queued up from midnight to buy them all.
Supporters gather outside the Apple Daily offices on Wednesday. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
With street protests essentially illegal, people mourned the end of Apple Daily online, sharing the pages in which they were interviewed or featured, photos of copies bought, protest art, or written eulogies.
“When sharp criticisms are completely gone, mild criticisms are seen as a nuisance,” said one person in mainland China. “When mild criticisms are not tolerated, silence is seen as an ulterior motive. When silence is not allowed, inadequate praises are a crime. If only one type of voice is allowed, then that voice is a lie!”
Apple Daily launched in 1995, founded by Jimmy Lai, a stowaway child from the mainland who became a self-made billionaire, media mogul and activist. Lai, who is now in jail on protest-related convictions and national security charges, told the BBC in 1995 he had always been a troublemaker. “I love trouble. I love the intensity of trouble.”
The tabloid-style paper grew to have enormous reach, with a chequered history including chequebook journalism, muckraking, and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigations into government corruption and police brutality. Its extensive coverage and support of Hong Kong’s protests over the years made it a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“It changed journalism in Hong Kong,” says Keith Richburg, the director of the University of Hong Kong’s journalism and media studies centre.
Its closure is a symbol of how that movement is being crushed, primarily under the weight of the NSL.
Authorities refuse to say how the law applies to media. Critics say this is a deliberate strategy to encourage journalists to self-censor or limit coverage to avoid crossing red lines. In a circular argument they say the press has nothing to fear, as long as journalists do not break the law which they refuse to define.
International outrage has had no effect. On Friday, Lee and the police commissioner, Chris Tang, were promoted.
Whether authorities genuinely consider Apple Daily’s actions to be criminal, or if they are just less shy about the limits they want to impose on the press, is “the million dollar question”, says Richburg.
“A lot of it will be clearer when they eventually have a trial. If the government wants people to really understand it’s not about press freedom, that it’s about specific things Apple Daily did to violate the national security law, they need to lay it out in public.”
Some veteran media workers say that with Apple Daily gone and public broadcaster RTHK already muzzled, they fear independent online outlets such as Stand News, CitizenNews and Hong Kong Free Press may be the next targets.
At least one-third of Hong Kong’s mainstream media outlets are under mainland Chinese ownership or have significant mainland stakes, while the rest are owned by Hong Kong conglomerates with business interests in China, according to a report.
Hong Kong Free Press is confident it can continue as normal, says its editor-in-chief, Tom Grundy.
“HKFP is an impartial news outlet and our hard news reporting has not changed. We are taking one day at a time and staying put,” Grundy says.
On Friday, Apple Daily staff were busy clearing out their offices. After the closure announcement the building’s government-linked landlord almost immediately initiated processes to repossess it, citing breaches of the lease.
“I did nothing wrong and I’m proud to be here,” says Kwan.
“I’ve never regretted making the choice one year ago. Hong Kong still needs reporters who are willing to speak the truth, even if it risks their career and freedom.”