Hong Kong – The board of Next Digital Ltd. agreed to suspend operations of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, local media reported on Monday, after police in Hong Kong arrested top editors and froze its bank accounts last week.
The company will meet again on Friday to decide on the date to stop publishing the flagship newspaper of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, Sing Tao Daily and others reported.
Hong Kong national security officials are blocking the newspaper’s bank accounts, and it may need to close its print and digital operations unless authorities allow access to the funds, Mark Simon, a top adviser to Lai, said earlier on Monday. Companies that regularly do business with the newspaper tried to deposit money in its accounts on Friday but were prevented from doing so, he said.
The paper had roughly 521 million Hong Kong dollars ($67 million) in cash at the end of March and said it was able to keep operating for 18 months from April 1 without any new injection of funds from Lai, according to an exchange filing. Trading in Next Digital shares is suspended.
Simon said the authorities’ decision to block access to that money is effectively shutting down the company. “It’s the government that decides if Apple Daily stays or goes,” he said. “Once they get rid of us, who’s next?”
Hong Kong’s moves to arrest Lai and target Apple Daily editorial staff have alarmed foreign governments and human rights groups, which say China and the Beijing-backed local administration are undermining constitutionally guaranteed freedoms in the Asian financial hub.
Hong Kong police arrested five senior staff at the media organization on Thursday and froze HK$18 million in company assets. Around 500 police officers descended on Apple Daily’s headquarters, searching offices, barring journalists from their desks and carting away nearly 40 computers belonging to editorial staff.
Apple Daily reported over the weekend that the board of Next Digital plans to ask the city’s Security Bureau on Monday for the release of some frozen assets so it can pay the wages of its employees by the end of the month.
Senior managers on some teams in Apple Daily’s newsroom called in reporters and editors, including those who are on leave, to attend an urgent meeting on Monday at 4 p.m. local time, according to three reporters and editors who declined to be identified. Some teams have already told part-time staff including interns that there’s no need to show up at the office or keep working for the paper, according to these people.
Some staffers were planning to leave for other jobs after the raid on Thursday, according to three reporters who asked not to be identified. They are also worried that companies or media outlets won’t hire anyone who worked at the paper.
The newspaper, which cheered on Hong Kong’s unprecedented pro-democracy protests in 2019, has been under increasing pressure since China imposed a national security law on the city last year.
Lai, a media tycoon and well-known democracy advocate, is in jail for attending unauthorized protests. The city’s Security Bureau had earlier frozen some of Lai’s assets and sent letters to some of his bankers, threatening them with years in jail if they deal with any of his accounts in Hong Kong.
A Hong Kong court on Saturday denied bail to Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law and Cheung Kim-hung, the newspaper’s publisher and chief executive officer of Next Digital. The others arrested included Chief Operating Officer Royston Chow and Apple Daily deputy editors Chan Pui-man and Cheung Chi-wai.
The U.S. called for the immediate release of the detained editors, while Human Rights Watch said the arrests amounted to “a new low in a bottomless assault on press freedom.”
In a statement, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong, said it was “concerned that this latest action will serve to intimidate independent media in Hong Kong and will cast a chill over the free press,” which is guaranteed under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Simon, Lai’s adviser, said the government’s moves against Apple Daily tarnish the image of Hong Kong as an international financial center where information can flow freely and basic freedoms are protected.
“You can’t limit what the average person considers normal journalism and expect to run an international financial center,” he said. “‘No free press’ is a direct correlation to ‘no free markets,’ which equals not being an international financial center.”
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