Across Hong Kong on Thursday morning the queues stretched for hundreds of metres, wrapping around corner after corner. Starting before dawn, crowds in the city of 7.5 million people lined up for hours to buy the final print edition of the Apple Daily newspaper, forced to close by authorities which had accused it of national security offences.
Normally selling 80,000 copies a day, they printed a million. It was in such hot demand that by mid morning Hongkongers were crowdsourcing an online spreadsheet of convenience stores that still had copies for sale.
“Hong Kongers bid a painful farewell in the rain: ‘We support Apple Daily’,” read the final front page headline. The half page photo showed the crowds of supporters who had gathered outside the building the night before, leaving messages of thanks on the front gate, and waving up to the staff gathered at the windows and balconies, shining their torch lights.
Its founder and owner has been in jail since December, its chief executive and editor-in-chief since last Thursday, and lead editorial writer for less than 24 hours. All were charged with foreign collusion under a national security law which international governments and rights groups say is being wielded to crush dissent.
After police raided the newsroom last week and the security secretary froze the paper’s assets and accounts, Apple Daily’s parent company, Next Digital Media, had no choice. Unable to pay staff or operating costs, it announced the website, app and social media accounts would shut down on midnight Wednesday and the final newspaper would hit the stands on Thursday.
A farewell note by the paper’s former associate publisher, Chan Pui-man, who resigned from her position after her arrest, said management had decided to close the paper days earlier than the board had suggested, out of concern for staff safety and manpower.
Authorities had made it clear the investigation was ongoing, and that staff could be targeted. The lead opinion writer, who published under the name Li Ping, had been arrested on Wednesday morning.
Inside the newsroom, staff took group photos, while some wept as they put together the last edition, watched by reporters from rival outlets who were there to cover a significant moment for their industry.
“We’re trying to do the best at the very last moment,” a harried page designer, who gave his surname as Kwok, told Agence France-Presse. “It’s a complicated feeling.”
One photographer, who declined to be named, told the news agency there were more employees in the newsroom than usual, almost like a reunion or a funeral. “It was a chance to gather all the colleagues together, we made it a historical moment,” he said.
Journalists took copies of the last paper down to the gate, one climbing the fence to hold them aloft and hand them out to the gathered supporters. Police later arrived to disperse the crowds, warning they could breach pandemic-related bans on gathering, broadcaster RTHK reported.
On Thursday people shared videos of the long queues, and photos of the copies they’d obtained. Protest art spread across social media, amid sadness and anger at the closure.
Apple Daily’s demise was “shocking but not surprising”, said Keith Richburg, the director of Hong Kong University’s journalism and media studies Centre. “I think from the time the national security law was put in by Beijing … everyone knew Apple Daily was a target, that it would probably end up being shut down because of this law,” he said.
“The government didn’t view it as a news organisation as much as they viewed it as an opposition figure … I think people are just kind of stunned by the speed at which it’s happened.”
World governments and rights groups slammed the closure as a clear demonstration of Hong Kong authorities using the law to crush dissent and free speech. “Its closing seriously undermines media freedom and pluralism, which are essential for any open and free society,” a European Union statement said.
China’s nationalistic Global Times paper praised the closure of the “secessionist tabloid”.
The Hong Kong government is unapologetic about the closure of one of the city’s most independently minded news outlets. The head of the police national security department, the secretary of security, and the chief executive have all insisted in recent days that the alleged crimes of Apple Daily’s senior staff had nothing to do with “normal journalism”, and the extraordinary actions taken against the company were not an attack on the free press.
Hong Kong’s former chief executive CY Leung, rumoured to be seeking a comeback, wrote on Facebook that Apple Daily was seeing the consequences of someone “colluding with scum from foreign countries”.
“Apple Daily and Next Magazine, founded by Jimmy Lai, are not media organisations but his political venting tools. Whatever happened to him, his family and assistants had nothing to do with journalistic work or press freedom,” he said.