BANGKOK - Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper closed its doors just before midnight Wednesday, ending 26 years of journalism.
The company's remaining board members decided to close the paper earlier that day, following the arrests last week of five Apple Daily executives under the city's national security law. Authorities arrested one of its editorial writers Wednesday.
With Hong Kong's security bureau freezing the company's remaining financial assets and the paper's founder and owner, Jimmy Lai, in jail, the board had little choice but to fold.
An official statement from Next Digital, Apple Daily's parent company, said it decided to shut down operations right after midnight "in view of staff members' safety." Earlier this week, the publisher had said it would run until Saturday.
Mark Simon, Lai's assistant, told VOA that the company could not pay staff and vendors after Hong Kong froze the newspaper's access to accounts.
"There is an order from the secretary of security (John Lee). Basically, no money, no news," Simon said earlier this week.
A spokesperson for Hong Kong's security bureau told VOA that it will not comment on active legal proceedings but that "endangering national security is a very serious crime."
Lam claps back
At a media briefing this week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam denied that the Apple Daily case was an attack on press freedom, saying, "What we are dealing with is neither a news outlet problem nor a news reporting problem. It's a suspicious act of endangering national security."
Lam added: "And don't try to accuse the Hong Kong authorities of using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or to stifle the freedom of expression."
Hong Kong has said the paper violated national security law, but it has not yet provided evidence or identified the articles it is referring to, Simon said.
"They're telling us that you're guilty of something, but they're not telling you what you're guilty of," he told VOA's Mandarin service.
At least 50 staff members resigned Monday afternoon in anticipation of the imminent closure. The following day, the newspaper's English news website closed, after just over one year in operation. The official website was due to go offline midnight Wednesday.
Outside the Next Digital offices in the district of Tseung Kwan O on Wednesday, supporters gathered and shouted slogans of support. With their smartphone flashlights shining, Apple Daily employees waved to supporters from balconies as the clock ticked to midnight.
But inside the offices, livestreams showed staff frantically preparing the final edition, which had an estimated million-copy print run. Others were visibly upset, reminiscing with colleagues, as dozens of journalists and photographers documented the company's final moments.
One of the staff members, a senior journalist identified only as "Lee," told VOA earlier this week that no matter what happened, he "would work until the last minute of Apple Daily."
Journalists at the newspaper have long anticipated that Apple Daily would end.
After the company offices were raided in August 2020 following the arrest of Lai, the paper's editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, reassured staff and encouraged them to keep reporting if another police raid happened.
Law was one of five executives arrested on June 17, as police raided the offices for the second time in a year. All five are accused of foreign collusion. Law remains in custody.
Lai is currently serving time in jail following his involvement in protests in 2019. The 73-year-old media tycoon is also awaiting trial over foreign collusion charges under the national security law and could face life imprisonment.
Lai founded Apple Daily as a tabloid in 1995. The paper later focused on politics, but with its open criticism of China, sponsors became cautious, leading to a decline in advertising revenue.
"The closure of Apple Daily marks the end of a vibrant and free era in Hong Kong," Emily Lau, a former Democratic Party leader, told VOA.
While residents have greater safety and freedom than some countries, "the departure of Apple Daily makes many people feel loss of press freedom and freedom of expression," Lau said.
But Lau insisted that despite the closure of the pro-democracy newspaper, "press freedom is not dead."
Political analyst Joseph Cheng, who moved to Australia from Hong Kong, told VOA that it's a sad day for the pro-democracy movement and Hong Kong as a whole.
"It's a sad day for Hong Kong as well because the way that the newspaper had ceased publication certainly means that there is not much freedom of the media in the territory," he said.
Business as usual?
Cheng added that Hong Kong's reputation as an international financial center could also be damaged.
"Now we certainly see freedom of information flow, rule of law ... have been much eroded, and so it will affect the very livelihood and very functioning of Hong Kong," Cheng said.
Protesters used to carry copies of Apple Daily during rallies on important dates in Hong Kong, and the newspaper was a "companion, a spiritual and moral supporting force" Cheng said.
One of those dates was July 1, which marked Britain's returning of the territory to China in 1997. In 2021, the date will mark a year since the national security law went into effect.
For the first time in 18 years, the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front canceled the annual rally to commemorate July 1. The group's convener, Figo Chan, was jailed in May over an illegal protest in 2019.
Beijing passed the national security law after anti-government protests in 2019. The legislation bans acts that authorities deem subversion, secession or foreign collusion.
The U.S. State Department earlier this week said it was "deeply concerned by the Hong King authorities' selective use of the national security law."
Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that the charges "are purely politically motivated" and the law is being used as a "tool to suppress independent media."
Hong Kong lawmaker Holden Chow said the arrests of the Apple Daily executives were a "proper legal enforcement" and not an attempt to suppress press freedom.
Chow described national security as of "paramount importance" in the region, telling VOA, "As always, Hong Kong people will continue to enjoy freedom of press guaranteed under Basic Law as long as they don't go beyond the law."
But media rights groups condemned Hong Kong's actions Wednesday.
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, tweeted, "Chinese authorities seem intent not just to limit press freedom in Hong Kong, but to kill it outright."
Others have a more hopeful outlook. The Taiwan-based lawyer and commentator Sang Pu notes that while the media environment is "very dark," independent outlets still exist.
"Does it mean there's no free press in Hong Kong? Not necessarily. It's 2021, and it's a digital age. There are lot of online news media emerging, such as Stand News and Citizen News, and there are other popular news accounts on Facebook, on Twitter," Sang Pu told VOA Mandarin.
VOA Mandarin service's Stella Hsu and Peggy Chang contributed to this report.