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The unnatural death of Apple Daily and the future of independent journalism in Hong Kong

(Editor's note: This article first appears in The Conversation. This is a longer version published on the author's page.)

Last edition of Apple Daily was printed last Wednesday. CitizenNews

Hongkongers had barely dried their tears over the forced closure of Apple Daily, a populist, sometimes bawdy, always staunchly pro-democracy daily launched as the “Hong Kong people’s newspaper” in 1995, when more bad news dropped for the city’s once-vaunted press freedom.

The former managing editor of Apple Daily’s English edition and lead Chinese editorial writer Fung Wai-kong (who wrote under the pen-name Lo Fung) was arrested at the Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday, June 27 as he prepared to leave for the UK. He is accused of conspiring to collude with foreign forces and is the seventh senior Apple Daily journalist to be arrested on national security charges in two weeks.

The paper Fung wrote for was undoubtedly flawed, with its sensationalist coverage and ethical lapses, but it also exposed corruption in high places, won awards for its investigative reporting, and dared to stand up to Beijing. Its existence was a barometer of Hong Kong’s press freedom and freedom of expression.

Readers and supporters bid farewell to Apple Daily. CitizenNews

The end of Apple Daily on June 24 wasn’t a surprise. But that it came at such short notice, following dramatic raids, the arrest of senior journalists and the freezing of its assets has already had a chilling effect on the rest of Hong Kong’s media.

Many in the sector have harboured fears that independent online media would be next. Sure enough, hours before news of Fung’s arrest broke, Stand News announced a slew of pre-emptive measures to reduce risk to its staff, authors and supporters. The platform is a non-profit, independent online news outlet that has reported extensively on Hong Kong protest movements and provides a platform for civil society voices. Among the measures was the temporary removal of all opinion articles published in and before May this year.

Running out of places to work

Apple’s demise and the wiping of Stand News archive are the latest in a series of developments that have eroded Hong Kong’s press freedom and undermined editorial independence at the city’s news outlets. These include the muzzling of Hong Kong’s public service broadcaster RTHK and personnel changes at pay-TV channels i-Cable and Now TV that have seen pro-government figures replace respected journalists. In the wake of these developments, journalists are running out of newsrooms where they can still practise relatively independent, critical journalism.

Six of Stand News directors resigned ahead of July 1. 

Joy* joined Apple Daily in November 2019, at the height of the protests, due to the censorship she says was practised by her previous employer, the main terrestrial broadcaster TVB. “There was much more freedom at Apple Daily,” she says.

She never imagined the paper would fold so soon, even after the first raid on the newspaper and arrest of founder Jimmy Lai in August last year. But her fears grew after the police chief Chris Tang accused Apple Daily of producing “fake news” and Beijing-backed newspapers began to call for the paper’s outright banning.

“At the time, I thought the likely banning of the paper would come about through a fake news law, but legislation takes time, I thought we’d have at least six months.”

The events of the past weeks have left Joy disheartened about the future of the Hong Kong media. “In my heart, I still want to be a journalist, but my only remaining choices are Stand News and Citizen News. Yet they’re likely to be the government’s next targets.”

Long queue around the city where citizens were eager to get the last edition of Apple Daily.  AP Photo

Another journalist, Max* who currently works at Citizen News admits he does worry: “We’re always saying we might not be able to carry on for much longer, maybe a year, or maybe even that’s too optimistic.”

But Max insists that even if the platforms disappear, there will be journalism as long as there are journalists. He himself is a member of the former i-Cable China team that joined Citizen News en masse after the mass resignations there last year. His experience prompted him to write a social media post urging former Apple Daily journalists to set up their own teams and journalistic ventures.

“The example of i-Cable tells us that many local news reporters switched to working in public relations, very few stayed [in journalism]. I think is a real pity, especially as they were the bastion of the new generation, my generation. Normally, we’d be the ones to teach the next generation of new journalists in a few years’ time.”
While many of his peers have left journalism, Max intends to stay for as long as he can. He told me: “I’m always reminding myself that when mainland [Chinese] journalists are still striving within and outside the system … how can we give up so easily?”

Tomorrow’s journalists

While there is no shortage of commentators ready to declare the death of press freedom in Hong Kong, the city’s journalism schools continue to train tomorrow’s journalists. But how do you teach journalism in today’s and indeed, tomorrow’s Hong Kong?

According to Francis Lee, director of the School of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “No matter how the journalism landscape changes and how press freedom is being undermined, the basic value of journalism does not change. Any society needs someone to collect, interpret and disseminate information about public matters and organise societal discussions of such matters … the reason for a School of Journalism and Communication to exist in the first place is because of the significance of journalism in public communication.”

Lee points out that historically, there has been meaningful journalism practised in authoritarian societies, but he acknowledges it will be frustrating and difficult to adapt. “The challenge in the near future is how to respond to the changing technological and political reality without changing who we are,” he says.

Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University and former principal China reporter at i-Cable, says journalism schools in Hong Kong used to teach students how to be journalists in a free society. But as Hong Kong loses more of its freedoms “we have to help students understand how to report in Mainland [China], because the environment is increasingly converging with that of the mainland, where there are many clear and hidden rules,” Lui says. “Behind them are a bunch of political intentions, controlling these regulations, determining the rules of the game.”

Lui sees many students struggling to process the seismic changes that have rocked Hong Kong, not just in terms of media freedom, but also other areas such as the rule of law, the civil service, and education in the time since they started their degrees. Some feel helpless and lost, they no longer want to become journalists but others see a, “greater need for journalists to monitor authority and speak for the weak”.

Another journalism lecturer, who did not want to give her name, agrees. She told me: “Fewer students may want to become journalists, but those that do are more serious about it. They pay great attention to topics like source protection in class. They have no fantasies or illusions about journalism, they know it’s hard, they know they could end up in prison.”

When I spoke to Charis*, a journalism student who reported from the frontlines of the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests in January last year, she said her experiences had hardened her resolve to become a journalist.

Now she’s conflicted because Hong Kong’s national security law, passed in 2020, has made it more difficult to report, and the crackdown on independent and critical media means there are fewer outlets where she’d be able to report freely.

Many journalism students used to aspire to work for RTHK, but Charis recently turned down a coveted internship there because new rules would have required her to swear an oath of allegiance to the Hong Kong government.

“I’m going on exchange to Taiwan in September, but in June Taipei issued a form where anyone seeking to reside there had to declare whether they had sworn allegiance to the Hong Kong government … I realised that swearing the oath could affect my whole future,” she explains.

Despite the setback and her concerns about how the Hong Kong mediascape will look when she graduates in a year’s time, Charis hasn’t given up on journalism just yet. “It’s a difficult path to tread and press freedom is forever shrinking. But I still hope we can use any remaining freedom to report the best we can. I believe that as long as there are people willing to do so, there will be space to practice journalism.”

*Names have been changed to protect source anonymity