HONG KONG — Apple Daily, a defiantly pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, said on Wednesday that it would cease operations, in the face of a pressure campaign by authorities that has eroded media freedoms in the city.
The newspaper said it would stop publishing in print and online by Thursday, less than a week after the police froze its accounts, raided its offices and arrested top editors.
The closure will silence one of the biggest and most aggressive media outlets in the city, reinforcing the vast reach of the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing. Since its passage nearly a year ago, the law has sent a chill through Hong Kong’s once freewheeling news media as they navigate a treacherous environment where speech can be a potential crime.
In recent months, the authorities have moved to overhaul RTHK, a public broadcaster with a history of hard-hitting journalism. Police officials have warned against media outlets spreading “fake news.” And in April, a court convicted a journalist, who was critical of the police, for making false statements.
The first trial under the national security law opened on Wednesday, a case that will provide a signal about the criminality of political speech. The defendant, in part, has been charged with incitement to commit secession for displaying a protest slogan that calls for independence.
Apple Daily has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party of China for decades, and Beijing has long targeted its founder, Jimmy Lai, for his criticism of Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. Gossipy, irreverent, investigative, and deeply political, the newspaper devoted significant coverage to the protest movement in 2019. It ran front page headlines that called on readers to take to the streets. As the law took effect, it repeatedly warned of threats to Hong Kong’s freedoms.
Just weeks after the passage of the security law, authorities moved quickly to rein in the media outlet. In August, the police arrested Mr. Lai at his home and sent hundreds of police offices to the newsroom.
The police raided the newsroom again last Thursday, arresting two senior executives and three top editors on suspicion of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” On Wednesday, they arrested another journalist, Yeung Ching-kee, who wrote columns and editorials for the newspaper.
Mr. Yeung, who uses the pen name Li Ping, wrote last year that China’s Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong “have decided to strangle Apple Daily, to kill Hong Kong’s freedom of press and freedom of speech.”
“Even when the democratic world increases the sanctioning actions toward them, they would just intensify the suppression and prosecution against Apple Daily, in the hope that they would succumb to the pressure and surrender or stop publishing,” he wrote.
The media empire of Mr. Lai, who made his first fortune in clothing, has followed the evolution of Hong Kong. Mr. Lai pursued media ventures after the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen protest movement in 1989. He founded Apple Daily in 1995, just two years before Hong Kong was reclaimed by China.
“I made enough money for my life,” he told The New York Times last year. “I said, OK, let’s go into the media, because I believe in the media by delivering information, you’re actually delivering freedom.”
He anticipated his arrest under the national security law in a guest essay for the New York Times on May 29 of last year, writing that since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, he feared that the Communist Party “would grow tired not only of Hong Kong’s free press but also of its free people.”
The security law “will mark the end of free expression and many of the individual liberties so cherished in the city,” he wrote. “Hong Kong is moving from the rule of law to rule by law, with the Chinese Communist Party determining all the new rules of this game,” he wrote.
Last week, Ryan Law, Apple Daily’s editor in chief, and Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, were charged with conspiracy to commit collusion with foreign powers under the security law. They have been denied bail.
Mr. Law and Mr. Cheung were accused of conspiring with Mr. Lai to call for sanctions against Hong Kong. Last year the United States imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials over Beijing’s clampdown on the city. Since the security law went into effect on July 1, more than 50 people have been charged with violations, including many of the city’s most prominent opposition politicians.
Mr. Lai, who is serving a 20-month prison sentence for illegal assembly convictions, has also been charged with national security law violations. He faces a potential life sentence.
Apple Daily’s fate seemed assured last week when the Hong Kong authorities froze Apple Daily’s bank accounts. With the newspaper’s accounts closed, Mark Simon, an aide to Mr. Lai, said Apple Daily could not pay staff or receive payments from vendors.
On Monday the newspaper said it had asked the government to unfreeze its accounts. If the authorities did not retreat, Apple Daily said, its board would decide at the end of the week whether to close. The plans accelerated Wednesday after the arrest of Mr. Yeung.
During Apple Daily’s final days, employees had debated whether to continue working, worried about increasing the risk that they, too, would be arrested. Some wanted to stay until the last moment. Other did not think there was any point dragging out the inevitable.
As the newspaper made a last-ditch request to free up its accounts, some departments began resigning en masse. On Tuesday its English-language department posted a brief notice of its last update, hours after the video department signed off.
“The road ahead will be difficult,” said the anchor of the evening online broadcast. “We wish everyone peace.”
Those remaining divided their time between daily news stories and preparing for what they referred to darkly as the “obituary issue.”