Emotions run high as Hong Kong residents snap up final edition of Apple Daily

People queue up for last issue of Apple Daily at a newspaper booth at a downtown street in Hong Kong, on June 24, 2021. - AP

HONG KONG (Reuters): Hong Kong residents rushed in the early hours of Thursday (June 24) to snap up copies of the final edition of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to end its 26-year run after it became embroiled in a national security crackdown.

Emotions ran high as supporters of the popular newspaper, which has faced an unrelenting squeeze since its owner and staunch Beijing critic, Jimmy Lai, was arrested under the security law in August 2020, queued for their last copies just after midnight.

"I couldn't sleep well for the past few nights," said Tse, 60, a former medical worker, who leaned on a cart to support herself as she queued outside a newspaper vendor in the working class district of Mong Kok early Thursday.

"I hope the reporters can stay true to their faith and keep working hard."

Queues stretched at newsstands across the city early Thursday after an emotional final print run at the headquarters of the newspaper, which was forced to shut down after authorities froze its assets as part of a national security probe.

"(After) today, there is no press freedom in Hong Kong... I cannot see any future in Hong Kong," said Dickson Ng, 51, a designer at Apple Daily.

"I feel very disappointed and angry today. I don't understand why our limited group, company, and the newspapers were forced to stop operating under such circumstances."

In anticipation of robust demand for its final print run, Apple Daily, which mixes pro-democracy views with celebrity gossip and investigations of those in power, printed 1 million copies on Thursday, more than 10 times its usual print run.

The shutdown deals the most serious blow yet to Hong Kong's media freedoms and could potentially destroy its reputation as an open and free media hub after Beijing imposed the security law on the global financial centre last year, press advocacy groups say.

Critics of the law say it's being used to crush dissent in the former British colony, which authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong reject. Hong Kong and mainland officials have repeatedly said media freedoms are respected but are not absolute.

The Chinese foreign ministry said rights and freedoms could not jeopardise national security.

"I want to emphasise, Hong Kong is a society that has rule of law. Everyone is equal in front of the law, no one or no organisation is above the law," a spokesperson for the ministry said. "All rights and freedom, including media freedom, cannot go beyond the bottom line of national security."

Last week, 500 officers raided the newspaper's headquarters, with live feeds showing authorities sifting through reporters' notes and other journalistic material in scenes that drew international condemnation.

Five executives were arrested and two - chief editor Ryan Law, 47, and Cheung Kim-hung, 59 - were charged with conspiracy to commit collusion with a foreign country and denied bail. On Wednesday, a 55-year-old columnist for the paper was also arrested under the national security law.

Authorities also froze the assets of companies related to Apple Daily, which senior executives said left it unable to operate.

Lai has emerged as one of the highest-profile targets of the new law and is facing three national security charges, including colluding with a foreign country.

He has been in detention since December, denied bail under the security law and already serving several sentences for taking part in unauthorised rallies, including during the global financial hub's mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

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