HONG KONG—Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut “in a matter of days” after authorities froze the company’s assets under Beijing’s national security law, an adviser to jailed owner Jimmy Lai told Reuters on June 21.
The closure of Apple Daily would undermine the former British colony’s reputation as an open and free society and send a warning to other companies that could be accused of colluding with a foreign country, media advocacy groups said.
Next Digital, publisher of the top-selling 26-year-old newspaper, would hold a board meeting on June 21 to discuss how to move forward after its lines of credit were frozen, the adviser, Mark Simon, said.
“Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected,” he said by phone from the United States.
“We thought we’d be able to make it to the end of the month. It’s just getting harder and harder. It’s essentially a matter of days.”
— Luke de Pulford 裴倫德 (@lukedepulford) June 20, 2021
Apple Daily said on June 20 that the freezing of its assets had left the liberal newspaper with cash for “a few weeks” to maintain normal operations.
Chief Editor Ryan Law, 47, and Chief Executive Cheung Kim-hung, 59, were denied bail on June 19 after being charged with “collusion with a foreign country” under the Chinese Communist Party’s national security law.
Three other executives were also arrested on June 17, when 500 police officers raided the newspaper’s offices, drawing condemnation from Western nations, global rights groups, and the U.N. spokesperson for human rights.
Those executives are still under investigation, but were released from police detention.
Pro-Beijing Hong Kong and Chinese officials claimed that press freedom can’t be used as a “shield” for those who commit “crimes,” and slammed the criticism as “meddling” in China’s internal affairs.
‘We Can’t Bank’
In May, Reuters reported exclusively that Hong Kong’s security chief had sent letters to tycoon Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years of jail time for any dealings with the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
A Hong Kong-based spokesperson for Citibank said at the time the bank didn’t comment on individual client accounts. HSBC declined to comment.
Authorities are also prosecuting three companies related to Apple Daily for alleged collusion with a foreign country and have frozen HK$18 million ($2.3 million) of their assets.
Simon told Reuters it had now become impossible to conduct banking operations in the global financial hub.
“We can’t bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favor … and it was rejected.”
The newspaper has come under increasing pressure since owner and Beijing critic Lai, who is now in jail, was arrested under the national security law last August and has since had some of his assets frozen.
Lai has received widespread support from both Hong Kongers and overseas advocates for a free press.
“Jimmy Lai is not just a champion of a free press, he is a press freedom warrior. He fights for the right of his Apple News organization to publish freely, even as China and its backers in Hong Kong use every tool to quash them,” Kathleen Carroll, chairperson of the board for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said.
The committee awarded Lai the 2021 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award on June 21.
“We look forward to the day when we can present that award to him in person,” Carroll said.
Apple Daily plans to ask China’s Public Security Bureau to unfreeze the assets on June 21 and failing that attempt, it may look to challenge the decision in court.
Simon said some reporters have received threatening phone calls from unknown sources.
“Our staff are now just worried about personal safety,” he said.
Police have said dozens of Apple Daily articles were suspected of violating the national security law, the first case in which authorities have cited media articles as potentially violating the legislation.
Simon said that based on his understanding from officers’ questioning of the executives, around 100 articles were under scrutiny.
“After all this is said and done, the business community is going to look up and recognise that a man’s company was gutted and stolen by a communist regime in Hong Kong,” he said.
“That’s a big deal.”
By Anne Marie Roantree