It’s not often a newspaper sells a million copies these days.
But early yesterday morning Hong Kongers formed massive queues to pick up the final ever copy of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.
It is being seen as the latest victim of Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian stance towards Hong Kong despite its insistence that freedom of speech is guaranteed.
The media outlet’s demise came after five executives including editor Ryan Law were arrested, charged under the region’s controversial national security law, imposed on it by Beijing, with colluding with foreign forces or endangering national security.
Police later arrested a columnist for the paper – which has long scrutinised both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments.
Its founder Jimmy Lai was arrested last year on similar charges.
The final straw was the freezing of $HK18 million ($A3 million) of assets of Apple Daily’s owner Next Digital and it being locked out of accounts that held more than $A65 million.
It was unable to pay staff and those staff that remained were under threat of arrest.
‘Goodbye, take care of yourselves’
On Wednesday, Apple Daily announced it would shut for good citing “employee safety and manpower considerations”.
“Thank you to all readers, subscribers, clients and Hong Kongers for 26 years of immense love and support,” it said.
“Here we say goodbye, take care of yourselves.”
The company’s Taiwan Apple Daily edition will continue to print.
The Hong Kong authorities had suggested that locals cared little for Apple Daily.
Yet, as soon as the announcement was made, crowds began to appear outside Next Digital’s headquarters building to support the paper.
On a standard day, 80,000 copies of Apple Daily would be printed. But a reported one million copies were produced on Wednesday for a population of just 7.5 million people.
Final front page
Early on Wednesday morning queues began to appear across the city in front of newsstands and shops as Hong Kongers tried to get their hands on the final copy.
Within a few hours, the newspaper was all sold out.
The front page of the final edition pictured the crowd outside the Apple Daily building from just hours before – their phone lights lit up in unison.
“Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain: ‘We support Apple Daily,’” said the headline.
The media outlet’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages have all gone dark. The Apple Daily website now redirects to a URL which is simply “goodbye.appledaily.com”.
Its English language website was also closed down.
The final story simply stated: “Dear readers, this concludes the updates from Apple Daily. Thank you for your support.”
Paper a thorn in politicians’ side
Founded in 1995, two years before Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, the paper has been in the crosshairs of both the national and regional governments for months.
It was a brash tabloid. But it also skewered politicians and would question government decisions.
The Beijing establishment detested it because of its support for further democracy and the umbrella movement demonstrations.
The government had no power to close the paper under the previous limits of Hong Kong law, enshrined in the handover from the UK.
But the national security law, implemented in mid-2020, gave police sweeping new powers to crack down on any act of secession, subversion, terrorism of collusion with foreign forces.
Critics say those powers have been used widely to stop any dissent against the Beijing government which could now be classed as “subversion”.
While the government claims it didn’t close Apple Daily, the continued arrests of staff and freezing of assets effectively meant it had no choice but to shut.
HK Government insists freedom of speech is preserved
On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam brushed away any criticism that the end of Apple Daily was a blow for Hong Kong’s freedoms.
“Don’t try to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law,” Ms Lam said to reporters.
“Don’t try to beautify these acts of endangering national security. And don’t try to accuse the Hong Kong authorities for using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or to stifle the freedom of expression.”
The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, nicknamed the paper the “poisoned Apple”. It called Apple Daily’s founder Mr Lai a “traitor”.
In an editorial, it celebrated Apple Daily’s demise claiming it would bring “positive change” to Hong Kong.
“While a small proportion of readers called to ‘stand with Apple Daily’ on a rainy night, trying to create an emotional scene of sounding an elegy for the paper, more Hong Kong people felt relieved as the shutdown of the newspaper is a symbolic move to bring the practice of the ‘one country, two systems’ onto the correct path by ending an era when foreign proxies and secessionist forces could meddle in China’s internal affairs,” it said.
US President says closure has ‘intensified repression’
But Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific regional director, said it was “a dark day for press freedom”.
“The paper has been effectively banned by the government for publishing articles that criticised it, and for reporting on international discussions about Hong Kong,” she told Al Jazeera.
In a statement, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the “forced closure” was a “chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong”.
“It is crystal clear that the powers under the national security law are being used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent – rather than keep public order,” he said.
US President Joe Biden said the move “intensified repression” by Beijing on Hong Kong.
The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s long running broadsheet, reported on the end of Apple Daily but appeared to sit on the fence on the issue.
“Defender of freedoms or defiler of national sovereignty? What exactly was Hong Kong’s Apple Daily?” one headline read.
The newspaper is probably acutely aware that what happened to the Apple Daily this week could happen to it too down the track.