Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, is limping towards the end of its life pending a last-ditch attempt to have its seized assets unfrozen as insiders report a mass exodus of staff following an earlier company announcement that it might stop publishing as early as Saturday.

The Apple Daily newsroom. File Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

On Monday, the newspaper’s board of directors announced that the last edition of the tabloid-style daily could be printed in the early hours of Saturday, and stop its online output halted before midnight the same day, if the Security Bureau does not respond to its request to unfreeze bank accounts.

According to insiders at the paper, a large number of newsroom employees have already left and many sections are operating on a skeleton staff.

A piece of paper in the printing room that says Apple Daily would print 500,000 copies of newspaper for June 18, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Already, the newspaper’s finance section, its English edition, Twitter account and video department have all ceased operations.

The paper’s last tweet was sent at about 9 p.m. Monday. The finance section published a note around midnight saying it will no longer be updated. A news anchor said farewell to viewers during a 9:30 p.m. newscast.

“Thank you for your support every night since this news cast started 260 nights ago. The way forward is hard, and we wish everyone well,” the anchor said, adding: “We hope Hong Kong’s journalists will remain steadfast at their jobs and defend the truth even without this platform.”

“Until we meet again, Hongkongers please take care,” she said as the newscast ended.

A final English-language article at lunchtime on Tuesday read: “This concludes the updates from Apple Daily English. Thank you for your support.”

The last English-language Apple Daily post.

Some 500 police raided the paper last Thursday after arresting five top executives and charging parent company Next Digital’s CEO Cheung Kim-hung and Apple Daily Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law on suspicion of violating the national security law. The news outlet is accused of publishing more than 30 articles which called for sanctions on the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.

Three companies, Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited, were also charged, while the Security Bureau froze HK$18 million worth of assets of these firms.

Until the light goes out

A small number of veterans, however, have decided to stay put until “the light goes out” at the paper.

Coffee, a veteran reporter on the newspaper’s crime and traffic desk, said its team of about 20 reporters and editors will remain at the company and keep reporting until it formally shutters, although a few had tendered their resignations days earlier. 

Since the news about the company’s imminent shut down broke, most staffers shifted focus from reporting duties to taking photos with each other and at the company’s facilities before parting their ways. Reporters also visited the paper’s roaring printing presses to take a last look, Coffee told HKFP after finishing one of his last overnight shifts at the paper and sharing breakfast with colleagues at the office on Tuesday morning.

Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“Some colleagues are worried that [police] might storm in any time to arrest and raid the  place again,” he said. “Whether they get paid isn’t so important.”

Writers tend to find themselves more exposed to risk of arrest, he said, as they were the ones tasked with penning sensitive or critical articles, although crime beat reporters who handle news of traffic accidents, murders and other breaking evens are relatively shielded from such a prospect, he said.

‘Something to be proud of’

“Those who decided to stay behind all tend to think working at Apple Daily is something to be proud of,” Coffee said.

He said the newspaper has not failed him as an employer: it always had better benefits compared to its competitors and was never late on paychecks or asked for salary cuts even when the market was performing poorly, and regardless of whether the company was in the red or the black.

Apple Daily’s executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung looking through the paper’s copy on June 17, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Over the past six years, Coffee’s job required him to maintain constant contact and a friendly working relationships with police officers, who would sometimes pass on details of the crimes he was covering that were not included in official releases. But he also saw how their relationship deteriorated as officers grew increasingly hostile towards reporters during the 2019 protests, and ever more so towards those from Apple Daily, a paper that has been critical of the police, using terms like “black cops” splashed across its pages.

Coffee’s locker at Apple Daily. Photo: Supplied.

Meanwhile a politics beat reporter who decided to stay said he will “wait and see” until the last moment. He spoke with HKFP under condition of anonymity.

“I’ve worked in Apple Daily for over 10 years. I don’t have any plans yet, because what happened recently happened all too quickly,” he said. “It’s the same for Hong Kong. I think Hong Kong people are still figuring out how to adapt to the new environment.”

At the chief executive’s routine Tuesday press briefing, Carrie Lam said the police’s action against Apple Daily was not a matter of “normal journalistic work” but included acts that endanger national security. Individuals “cannot hide behind the shield” of journalism, the Hong Kong leader said.

She described the freezing of company assets as being in line with international norms, and said that if the move led to disputes about wages, the government will provide legal help to workers regardless of who their employer is. “Everyone is equal under the law,” she added.

To some Apple Daily reporters, however, the price of reporting the news may have exceeded what they imagined when they first joined the industry before the national security law was enacted.

Apple Daily office. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I think a lot of journalists, including me, can’t really grasp where the red line is,” the politics reporter said. “Sometimes when we ask where the red line for the national security law is, and they tell us: you’ll know if you go to court through the judgement. I think the price we have to pay is too big.”

For Coffee, memories at Apple Daily will be remembered “with a deep sigh.”

“I will be very nostalgic,” he said.

Additional reporting: Candice Chau.

Correction 23.6.21: A previous version of this story misstated that parts of Apple Daily’s operation suspended on Friday following a board decision. It should be Monday.

Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.