The Media Today

The frightening plight and uncertain future of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily

June 21, 2021

Last year, as June turned to July, China imposed a draconian new “security law” on Hong Kong, sparking widespread doubt—and no little alarm—as to what it might mean for freedoms of speech and the press in a territory that had once been a redoubt of both. Immediately, police made mass arrests at protests marking the twenty-third anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule; then, a few weeks later, they arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy businessman whose media company publishes the newspaper Apple Daily, alongside several company executives—ending what the Committee to Protect Journalists described as “an unnerving wait” for the security law’s first impact on journalism. The same day, more than a hundred police officers raided Apple Daily’s newsroom, and searched it for several hours. Lai was denied bail; in December, he was charged with colluding with foreign forces. In early 2021, officials invoked the law again as they arrested dozens of people involved with elections last year. Three news organizations, including Apple Daily, were ordered to hand over information about candidates.

Then, last Thursday—two weeks short of a year since the security law was implemented—the Hong Kong authorities wielded it in perhaps the most brazen way yet, as far as the press is concerned, and Apple Daily was once again the target. Its offices were again raided, but by some five hundred officers this time; they seized electronic devices, including more than forty computers and servers, as well as other reporting materials, including information about sources, and kicked staffers out, declaring the newsroom a crime scene. Officials froze accounts linked to Apple Daily containing more than two million US dollars, and arrested five members of the company’s leadership, again under the pretext of foreign collusion. Speaking at a press conference, Li Kwai-wah, a senior official with the Hong Kong police, cited Apple Daily articles that urged foreign countries to sanction China and Hong Kong; he said that the articles in question date back as far as 2019, even though the security law was not supposed to be retroactively enforceable. Li also warned members of the public against sharing content from Apple Daily. “As a law enforcer,” he said, “I would advise you not to invite suspicion.”

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Officials attempted to draw a distinction between their view that Apple Daily is a security threat and their general respect for press freedom; John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary, said that “normal journalists are different from them.” But this is nonsense. The authorities’ legal crackdown on the media is broader than Apple Daily; it predates the security law, and even now does not depend on it. In November, officials charged a student journalist called Nelson Tang and an unidentified local-news reporter with obstruction offenses in relation to their past coverage of protests; in February, they dusted off a sedition law dating to the British colonial period to charge Wan Yiu-sing, who hosted an online radio show under the alias “Giggs.” In April, a court convicted Bao Choy of making false statements in the course of her work, for the public broadcaster RTHK, investigating a violent 2019 attack on protesters; she had given “other traffic and transport related issues” as her reason for accessing public license-plate data since “journalism” wasn’t an option on the form. The authorities didn’t even need the security law to keep Lai in prison: also in April, he was handed a fourteen-month sentence on unlawful-assembly grounds linked to protests in 2019. (The collusion charges are pending.)

These legal threats have occurred, meanwhile, within a broader framework of repression that has also made room for state violence, cumbersome regulation, and subtler manifestations of official pressure—as Elaine Yu reported for CJR in March, any reflection on the months since the imposition of the security law “shows a systematic push from Beijing-backed authorities to tame Hong Kong’s press.” Yu noted officials’ moves to effectively deny press accreditation to student and citizen journalists, as well as troubling developments at RTHK, where Nabela Qoser, a reporter who has asked tough questions of powerful people, was placed on a short-term contract—“a move interpreted as an effective termination”—and the government then installed a bureaucrat with no journalistic background as director, while also recommending greater oversight of “sensitive” editorial content. This climate has affected international media, as well as domestic outlets; shortly after the security law came into effect, the New York Times began relocating part of its Hong Kong operation to Seoul, in South Korea, citing “uncertainty” around the law and visas. Speaking with dozens of journalists on the ground, Yu found mounting impulses toward self-censorship on the part of some reporters and their sources, though many, she noted, had remained defiant. “You can’t chop off your toes to avoid the sand bugs,” Apple Daily’s Leung Ka-lai told Yu, referencing a Cantonese proverb. “You can’t say, I’ll retreat a little and not write this word or not pursue this subject. It’s all or nothing.”

There continues to be plenty of defiance. Last August, following Lai’s arrest and the raid on Apple Daily’s newsroom, residents stood in line from the early hours to buy copies—“We would have even bought a blank Apple Daily paper today,” one saidand many readers also bought shares or took out ads in the paper containing supportive messages; on Friday, after Apple Daily was raided again, lines formed early at newsstands again, and the paper printed half a million copies, more than five times its usual run, to meet the demand. Apple Daily reporters covered the raid aggressively, filming inside the newsroom, and then, after they were expelled, from the roof. Still, defiance is often met with stronger and stronger blows, not all of which can be withstood. Yesterday, Apple Daily’s leadership announced that, given the freezing of the paper’s accounts, it may only have enough cash to continue operating for a few weeks. Today, it said that, pending a board meeting on Friday, the paper could shutter as soon as Saturday.

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Earlier today, Apple Daily ran an editorial headlined, “Uphold freedom of press with no regrets.” Its writer, Lo Fung, noted that the paper marked its twenty-sixth birthday yesterday by publishing “news, commentaries, and features on its paper and website just like it has been doing since Jun 20, 1995”—a “miracle” attributable to the resilience of its staff. “However,” the editorial continued, “the road ahead is full of thorns,” not least “the ambiguous and untraceable red line of the national security law. For Apple Daily to survive through all of these is not a promise to be made, and perhaps we could only go one step at a time, to persist one day at a time.”

Below, more on press freedom in Hong Kong and around the world:

Other notable stories:

  • Last week, the writer Janet Malcolm died, aged eighty-six. Malcolm “was preoccupied with doubleness, with divided selves that tried to keep one half hidden,” Jennifer Szalai writes, in the Times. Elsewhere, the New Yorker, where Malcolm worked for fifty-eight years, published tributes from staffers and other writers. “It is rare for an essayist of superior intellect and superior style never to outshine or overshadow her subjects; Janet Malcolm did neither,” Merve Emre wrote. “Checking her was like being shut in with a leopard,” Fergus McIntosh, Malcolm’s fact checker, added. “I’ll miss that feeling dearly.”
  • For the Times, Kat O’Brien writes that a Major League Baseball player raped her in 2002, when she was a sports reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. (O’Brien, who no longer works in journalism, chose not to name the player.) “Ultimately, I decided that I needed to say this aloud, and put my voice to a movement that needs all the voices it can get,” she writes. “The sports industry loses out when talented women question whether it’s worth it to work in an industry that brings with it so much harassment.”
  • CJR’s Savannah Jacobson explores what the “mainstream media” actually is. “Even in a marketplace with more choices, I’d argue that a mainstream media does exist. There is a collection of agenda-setting channels and publications… whose coverage is influenced and reinforced by one another,” she concludes. “Collectively, they create a mainstream point of view, to which others must react. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
  • Ben Smith, media columnist at the Times, reports that Tucker Carlson, of Fox News, “spends his time when he’s not denouncing the liberal media trading gossip with them,” as many journalists’ “go-to guy for sometimes-unflattering stories about Donald J. Trump and for coverage of the internal politics of Fox News.” Such relationships, reporters who write about Carlson say, have “taken the edge off some of the coverage” about him.
  • Benjamin Wallace-Wells, of the New Yorker, explains how Christopher Rufo, a conservative journalist, turned a story about anti-bias training for city employees in Seattle into a national crusade against “critical race theory” that reliably lights up Fox News and right-wing Twitter. “This entire movement came from nothing,” Rufo says—but the truth, Wallace-Wells writes, “is more specific than that. Really, it came from him.”
  • On Thursday, producers, bookers, and other staff at MSNBC announced plans to form a union. Network hosts including Chris Hayes and Joy Reid signaled their support, but, according to the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani, some executives are pushing back, with one manager telling employees that unionization could obstruct MSNBC’s plans to diversify its staff. Per Tani, the network does not plan to recognize the union voluntarily.
  • Jemele Hill, of The Atlantic, considers whether journalists have the right to ask sports stars if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. “The short answer is yes,” Hill argues. “If a player’s availability to his team could be compromised because of exposure to the virus, that’s crucial information. It shouldn’t be treated any differently from when a player suffers an injury such as a concussion, an ankle sprain, or a torn ACL.”
  • The Spokesman-Review, in Spokane, Washington, plans to revive the Spokane Daily Chronicle, a newspaper that went out of print in 1992, as a digital afternoon edition for Spokesman-Review subscribers. Rob Curley, the Spokesman-Review’s editor, explains that his paper wanted to emulate others that have added pages to their daily e-editions, but do so in a way that prioritizes breaking local news over national wire stories.
  • And Richard B. Stolley, the founding editor of People magazine, has died. He was ninety-two. In 1963, while working at Life magazine, Stolley was the first journalist to obtain Abraham Zapruder’s amateur film footage of the Kennedy assassination. According to the Post, on the day of the assassination, Stolley called Zapruder “again and again, every fifteen minutes, until sometime around 11pm, Zapruder answered.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.