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Copies of the Apple Daily newspaper at a newspaper stall. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU
Copies of the Apple Daily newspaper at a newspaper stall. Picture: REUTERS/TYRONE SIU

Less than a week after Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily closed abruptly after a crackdown by Beijing, the unease is spreading to other pro-democracy media in Hong Kong, a city that’s long protected civil liberties unseen in mainland China.

The Stand News on Sunday announced the resignations of its directors — including former pro-democracy politician Margaret Ng and singer-activist Denise Ho. Separately, the publication said it would take down some blog posts, commentaries, reader submissions and even stop taking reader donations. The changes would help “protect all supporters, authors and editors, and to reduce the risks of all parties,” according to its website.

Extending their action against Apple Daily, police arrested the chief editorial writer of the tabloid at the airport just as he was attempting to leave Hong Kong, according to media reports over the weekend. The journalist is the seventh person swept up this month in a probe into alleged violations of the sweeping national security law China imposed on the city last year.

Apple Daily, a prominent symbol of the city’s free press, printed its last edition on June 24, just days after its 26th anniversary.

The developments are the latest sign of the changed environment for press freedoms in the former British colony under the new law, which bars subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign collusion. The government credits the legislation with helping restore stability to the city, which was rocked by months of pro-democracy protests in 2019, but denies rolling back the free-speech protections it guaranteed before the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“The future looks grim,” said Ronson Chan, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and a deputy assignment editor at Stand News. “The government is placing restrictions everywhere. As a journalist, you can’t write freely, or you lose your job or you get prosecuted as a criminal.”

Such sentiments challenge the government’s argument that its actions haven’t had a “chilling effect” on press freedom in one of Asia’s top financial centres . “Some politicians in the US and the West falsely claim that this move ‘suppresses freedom of speech and the press,’” a spokesperson for China’s top agency overseeing Hong Kong said, adding the law “only targets a few people whose actions violate national security.”

Deterrent effect

Last week, Hong Kong CEO Carrie Lam acknowledged that a “preventative and deterrent effect” was one of the government’s goals.

On Monday, the South China Morning Post said it would even change the name of its “Hong Kong National Security Law newsletter,” instead calling it “Hong Kong Politics” in order to “take into account the wider picture of the impact of the law.”

Earlier this month, authorities arrested Apple Daily’s three top editors and two executives at publisher Next Digital , which was founded by the now-jailed activist and media tycoon Lai. Apple Daily came under cash pressure from an asset freeze and subsequently stopped publishing, with activists staging a midnight vigil outside the newspaper last week as the presses ran for what would likely be the last time.

Foreign collusion

Lai, 73, is already serving prison time for his roles in unauthorised protests and is facing separate national security charges on allegations that he colluded with foreign powers. The accusations against him are based on his social media posts and comments to foreign media outlets, as well as donations police say he made to the advocacy group “Stand With Hong Kong,” according to court filings and local media reports citing police documents.

The journalist detained at the airport is Fung Wai-kong, media including broadcaster TVB said Sunday. Hong Kong police said in a statement that the city’s national security department held a 57-year-old man at Hong Kong International Airport for “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces to endanger national security,” without identifying Fung. The operation is still ongoing and “further arrests won’t be ruled out,” the police said.

The arrests and the closure of the popular tabloid have been condemned widely by human rights organisations and foreign governments. US President Joe Biden called the Apple Daily’s closure a “sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world,” and said that under the security law “Beijing has insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views.”

The security law has also seen authorities send threatening letters to bankers who handle the accounts of individuals being prosecuted by the government, and has raised concerns about whether companies that fall out of favour with authorities — including in Beijing — may find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Mark Simon, a senior adviser to Lai, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed over the weekend that the “Apple Daily didn’t just die. It was murdered,” and warned that Hong Kong’s vague red lines could limit transparency of local financial markets.

“Could a critical economic analysis of China’s power grid or a state-owned company be a threat to China’s national security? How about a short on the yuan?” Simon wrote. “Jimmy Lai often told us, ‘No free press, no free market.’ Those in the international business community who believe the closure of Apple Daily will have no impact on them are about to learn this lesson the hard way.”

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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