The editors fear that Communist China wants to close Apple Daily in weeks.
Journalists at Apple Daily, a feisty Hong Kong newspaper, had been bracing for some kind of a crackdown.
The splashy Chinese-language tabloid – which mixes celebrity gossip, investigations of the powerful and pro-democracy editorials – has increasingly been under the scrutiny of the authorities since the arrest last August of owner Mr. Jimmy Lai, who remains in jail for joining unauthorised rallies.
Still, Thursday’s early-morning raid by 500 police officers was a shock, not only to Apple Daily staffers but to journalists throughout China’s freest city and, more broadly, people concerned about eroding press freedom in the former British colony.
Officers sealed off the block around the building housing the Apple Daily newsroom and printing press, emptied the newsroom and rifled through computers and desks. They arrested five executives, including the two top editors, on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces.”
Scores of police milled about and swept the emptied newsroom for half a day, live feeds from expelled staff showed from outside.
The raid, seizure of journalistic material and arrests of senior journalists, for alleged violations of a year-old security law imposed by Beijing, is being widely seen as the most direct attack on Hong Kong’s freewheeling media since Beijing regained control of the city in 1997.
Now staffers fear the 26-year-old paper could be closed, said two senior editors and Mr. Mark Simon, Mr. Lai’s right-hand man, who has fled abroad.
Persistent rumours that the authorities would try to “shut down” Apple before July 1, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping leads celebrations for the Communist Party’s centenary, seem more likely now, Simon told Reuters.
I’m starting to think that, he said by phone from the United States.
The newsroom began bracing for a crackdown after Hong Kong’s police chief warned in April that media outlets that endanger national security through “fake news” would be investigated, said four Apple Daily reporters, ranging from junior to senior.
Morale suffered, and a handful of staffers quit. Town hall meetings were held to reassure staff and contingency plans laid. Most staff received cards with lawyer contacts and assurances the company would back everyone legally. News materials were firewalled or sent abroad to protect information and sources.
On the business side, with the company struggling financially and facing uncertainties over its building lease, non-core media businesses such as a charity fund run by Lai were moved to separate offices, Lai and another senior staffer said.
Apple Daily’s advocacy of democratic rights and freedoms has made it a thorn in Beijing’s side since Mr. Lai, a self-made textiles tycoon known for a hip clothing chain, started it in 1995. It shook up the region’s Chinese-language media landscape and became a democratic icon on the margins of Communist China.
"I will not quit"
Some observers say the media crackdown could extend beyond Apple, given China’s unrelenting drive to wrest control over the city after protests in 2019.
This is the first time a media organisation has been raided over the newspaper’s output, though police won’t clarify if it’s over articles, opinion pieces or editorials, said Mr. Tom Grundy, editor in chief of independent online media outlet Hong Kong Free Press.
The rules are unclear by design, as the security law is intended to make the media self-censor, he stated.
But despite the raid, some Apple Daily journalists said they would not be intimidated.
I will not quit at this moment, said a reporter who asked not to be identified. I think as a journalist, I can’t do anything to respond except to keep reporting.