'We will persevere': A newspaper faces the weight of Hong Kong’s crackdown

Tiffany May and Austin Ramzy, The New York Times

Posted at Aug 13 2020 03:05 AM

Editor-in-chief Ryan Law, top right, leads a meeting in the newsroom of Apple Daily, two days after it was raided by police and its founder and senior executives were arrested, in Hong Kong on Aug. 12, 2020. The pro-democracy newspaper has become a target under Beijing’s new national security law. Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times

HONG KONG — After more than 200 police officers raided the newsroom of Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, a staff reporter messaged the editor-in-chief with a question: Should I still go to work?

“You decide,” the top editor, Ryan Law, replied. “This is the biggest news story in the world.”

The reporter hurried to the office. The Monday raid led reporters and editors to produce livestreams and more than two dozen articles that day about the police sweep. They detailed the arrest of the newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, analyzed the legal implications of the crackdown, and covered the international outrage that it triggered.

“Apple will definitely keep fighting,” screamed a bold red banner headline in Tuesday’s edition.

Apple Daily is a tabloid with an agenda, known for both juicy morsels of celebrity gossip and hard-hitting investigations of government malfeasance. It has more than anything become known for its unabashed support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement — printing inserts for use as protest posters and reporting critically about Hong Kong’s leaders, police and the Chinese Communist Party.

Now the paper, which often breaks some of the biggest news in Hong Kong, has become one of the city’s biggest stories itself.

Lai, 72, along with his two sons and four executives from Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital, face possible charges of collusion with a foreign country or external elements under the new national security law. The newspaper’s headquarters have been searched and more than 30 crates of documents seized from its business offices.

Reporters are worried that sources might get in trouble for speaking with them. The security law looms over everything they do, posing new risks of serious legal penalties for what they publish.

“I worry that through some circumstances outside my control, I’ll be unable to protect my sources,” said Icy Chung, a general assignment reporter. “I worry a day will come when we have to choose between turning ourselves in and turning our sources in.”

In Hong Kong’s newly restrictive environment, the freewheeling publication is both a target and a test case for the government’s authority over the media.

Before Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong on June 30, the newspaper had sought to prepare for the possibility that it would one day become a target of authorities. Editors discussed whether they would have to destroy their reporting notes after the publication of a sensitive article. They debated the types of opinion pieces that might put them in legal jeopardy. They stopped using bylines on many stories to protect reporters.

Some reporters now worry about the survival of the newspaper, said Alex Lam, spokesman of the newspaper’s union and a reporter in the investigative team.

“We have a culture of instinctively wanting to go and help the company when it is in trouble,” he said. “The attitude now is one of meeting challenges together.”

The company organized legal briefings on how to respond if police raided the newsroom. Monday night, hours after the raid, the company had sent out a message to all employees with the phone numbers of its lawyers and guidelines on what information they are not required to give to police. Would they have to turn over passwords to their electronic devices, they wondered?

Law said that he wanted the newsroom to continue to churn out the news — Apple Daily is one of the quickest in posting breaking news in Hong Kong — despite the stress of coming under such scrutiny.

“No matter what circumstances and in what environment, please do your work,” he said. “We must be able to publish the news.”

The day after the raid, the newspaper’s investigative team agreed to finish projects that were close to completion even if the government froze the company’s finances and they were no longer paid, said Kaman Cheung, an editor who leads the team.

“What I can guarantee is that the work our reporters do, we will publish, and we won’t be scared,” Cheung said. Sensitive reporting material had been uploaded to private servers overseas before the passage of the national security law, she said.

Chung, the general assignment reporter, said that she had also erased auto-saved passwords on her work desktop and disabled face-recognition functions on her phone before the passage of the security law. She had even deleted the contact information of people she had interviewed from legally authorized protests last year.

Since the raid, Hong Kong residents have showered Apple Daily with support, lining up early Tuesday to buy print copies. The newspaper said it printed 550,000 copies of its Tuesday paper, compared with a regular run of about 70,000.

“I myself and many other Hong Kong people were trying to get a copy of Apple Daily to support the media and show our solidarity with Jimmy Lai,” said Joey Siu, an activist who posted a photo of herself with the paper she bought. “Of course we have differences in our political stances, but they are on the pro-democracy side, and we will defend our right to choose what media we want.”

Apple Daily has long faced challenges. As at traditional news outlets worldwide, the decline in print advertising and rise of new online competition has eroded its bottom line. For the fiscal year ending in March, Next Digital, the Apple Daily parent company, said its revenue had declined by 11%, while its net losses grew by nearly 23%. Last year it established a paywall for its online content from Apple Daily and its sister paper in Taiwan.

Political pressure has compounded the difficulties. Major advertisers shun it for fear of business repercussions in mainland China. Its newspapers have been stolen and burned. Lai was the target of a murder plot in 2009 and had the gates to his mansion rammed in 2013. In 2015, firebombs were thrown at Lai’s home and Next’s headquarters.

With major companies avoiding the paper, its pages now have advertisements from local supporters. A Thai products store put a beer ad on the front page Wednesday. “Alcohol is good to drink,” it said. “This paper is good to read.” Another, from an adult products store, used suggestive language to compliment Hong Kongers on their enthusiasm.

In addition to buying up copies of the paper, many in Hong Kong bought Next Digital stock after the police raid, and its price surged by more than 1,100% from Monday to Tuesday, briefly making it Hong Kong’s most valuable media holding.

“Hong Kong people will stand in line to buy copies of the paper; they buy the stock,” said Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s an everyday form of resistance when you can no longer go out and protest.”

On Wednesday, Apple Daily staff took a brief moment to celebrate the return of Lai, their embattled owner, after he was released on bail.

Lai, who had been marched through his newspaper in handcuffs while police officers carried out the search Monday, was given a hero’s welcome. He bowed and waved as employees applauded and handed him a bouquet of flowers. Cheung Kim-hung, the Next Digital chief executive who had also been arrested, gave him a hug.

“We will persevere and just” keep going, Lai told the team. “The media business is getting harder and harder. Let’s climb the mountain.”