The democratic government of Taiwan on Thursday condemned the forced closure of a Hong Kong newspaper as at attack on press freedom, as Hongkongers came to terms with the loss of the Apple Daily, an often sensationalist, sometimes hard-hitting daily founded by jailed media mogul Jimmy Lai.
“I’m deeply saddened by the forced shutdown of #AppleDailyHK,” Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen said via her Twitter account as the last-ever print edition of the paper hit the newsstands on Thursday.
“But despite this setback, I want to tell the people of #HongKong that #Taiwan will always stand with you in your struggle for freedom,” Tsai said. “Your dreams of democracy are the seeds of a better future for Hong Kong & the world.”
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) hit out at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for stamping out press freedom in once-freewheeling Hong Kong.
“The unfortunate incident not only sounded the death knell of Hong Kong’s press freedom and freedom of speech, but also showed the international community the Chinese Communist Party’s extreme ways of oppressing dissidents,” the MAC said in a statement.
New Power Party lawmaker Chen Jiau-hua said Beijing had failed to keep its promise to allow Hong Kong to retain its economic and administrative systems after the handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
“The fall of Apple Daily in Hong Kong again demonstrated to Taiwan and the world that the Chinese Communist Party stands against human rights and has no credibility,” she said.
Their comments came after U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab called the paper’s closure “a chilling blow to freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
“It is crystal clear that the powers under the National Security Law are being used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent – rather than keep public order,” Raab said in a statement on his ministry’s website.
“The Chinese government undertook to protect press freedom and freedom of speech in Hong Kong under the UK-Sino Joint Declaration. It must keep its promises, and stand by the commitments it freely assumed,” Raab said.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman warned that no media organization was exempt from following the law, which “cannot be challenged,” and told foreign countries not to interfere in China’s internal affairs.
‘More will be targeted now’
In Hong Kong, a former Apple Daily reader who gave only his surname Chan said the paper, for all its quirks, was best able to reflect the different voices of Hong Kong’s seven million people.
“I think that more and more media organizations will be targeted now, and what freedom of speech we have left will disappear,” Chan told RFA. “The dark ages have officially begun.”
A recent secondary school graduate surnamed Chan said she had been standing in line since shortly after midnight on Thursday to ensure she got her hands on a copy of the last Apple Daily edition to roll off the presses, one of a record print run of one million.
“It holds the memories of the people of Hong Kong, and a record of the changes that have taken place in recent years,” she said. “Something that was always there before has now suddenly been lost.”
Guan Zhongxiang, communications professor at Taiwan’s National Chung Cheng University, said the paper could have a limited afterlife as a smaller media organizations based overseas, out of the reach of the CCP.
“I think in that way at least they can at least keep the idea of freedom and democracy alive,” Kwan said. “It’s very important to remind people in Hong Kong of their importance: the spark should be kept alive.”
A landmark event
In the U.S., exiled pro-democracy activist and veteran dissident Wei Jingsheng said the demise of the Apple Daily was the end of Hong Kong as it once was.
“The Apple Daily incident is a landmark event. Freedom of speech in Hong Kong is a thing of the past,” Wei said. “This shows that the CCP has managed to complete its goal of turning Hong Kong into another part of mainland China.”
A lawyer surnamed Pei from the central Chinese province of Hunan said the closure of the Apple Daily, which had its assets frozen and several staff members arrested for violating the national security law, hadn’t come as a surprise, although it happened sooner than he had expected.
“Everything has changed now,” Pei said. “We saw the change in the rule of law in the court system after the national security law was imposed.”
“Now, the freedom of the press is gone, too. It’s dead.”
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet hit out at the jailing of the Apple Daily’s founder Jimmy Lai for exercising his rights, criticizing the tycoon’s detention as his pro-democracy tabloid printed its last edition.
Lai is serving jail time for attending peaceful protests judged illegal by the authorities, and awaiting trial for “collusion with foreign powers” under the national security law.
The closure of the Apple Daily came after an op-ed writer widely known by his penname Li Ping was arrested by national security police on Wednesday on suspicion of “collusion with a foreign power.”
National security police had earlier descended on the headquarters of Next Digital in Tseung Kwan O on June 17, confiscating computers and journalistic materials police said was “evidence” of collusion with foreign forces under the national security law, and arresting five of its executives.
Chief editor Ryan Law and Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung have since also been charged with “collusion with foreign powers,” while three other executives have been released on bail without being charged.
Reported by Lu Xi, Lau Siu Fung, Carmen Wu, Malik Wang and Qiao Long for RFA’s Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.