AFP, — A shadow of fear hangs over Hong Kong’s outspoken and staunchly pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, with its billionaire owner Jimmy Lai now jailed and many reporters asking themselves: “Are we next?”
Each day, tomorrow’s date is hung up on the walls of the bustling newsroom, a constant reminder of the need to get the next edition out.
But there are growing signs a time may come when the 26-year-old newspaper has no tomorrow in a city that once marketed itself as a regional bastion of the free press.
“I am facing the greatest crisis since I took up the post over three years ago,” Apple Daily’s chief editor Ryan Law told AFP, just days before authorities used a new national security law to freeze Lai’s assets, including his media empire shares.
On a table in Law’s office sat five recent resignation letters from staff, a vivid illustration of the worries coursing through the newsroom.
But Law, an Apple Daily veteran of some two decades, remained defiant — and devoted to journalism despite the threat.
“Some colleagues asked if Apple will eventually close shop when the CEO or I am arrested,” he said.
“I said: Apple is still here even after Mr Lai’s arrest.”
Caught in crosshairs
As China’s crackdown gathered pace in the wake of 2019’s huge and often violent democracy protests, mainland authorities made no secret of their desire to see Apple Daily — and its Next Digital parent group — shuttered.
The raucous tabloid, founded by Lai in 1995, has unapologetically backed Hong Kong’s long and fruitless democracy campaign and can be withering in its criticism of both Beijing and Hong Kong’s leaders.
Lai has long been branded a “traitor” and a “black hand” by Chinese state media, and declared guilty by senior communist party leaders.
Hong Kong’s police chief has recently taken to calling for a “fake news” law, making clear Apple Daily is in his sights.
Prosecutions have come thick and fast for Lai over the last year.
He is currently serving a 14-month sentence for attending two protests in 2019, and faces two more ongoing prosecutions linked to other rallies.
But the most serious charge is “colluding with foreign forces” — a new security crime — for allegedly campaigning for international sanctions.
Lai faces up to life in jail if convicted and it was the security law charge that enabled authorities to seize his assets.