HONG KONG -- The pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper printed its final edition on Wednesday evening, following the arrest earlier in the day of one of its editorial writers and an eviction warning from its government-owned landlord.
The board of directors of Next Digital, Apple's parent company, said in a statement that "due to current circumstances prevailing in Hong Kong," the newspaper would cease both print and online publication. Apple's website cited concerns over employee safety and a manpower shortage. Staff said that some colleagues have received threatening anonymous calls in recent days.
"The company thanks our readers for their loyal support and our journalists, staff and advertisers for their commitment over the past 26 years," the board statement said.
Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, a government-controlled corporation, said Wednesday evening that it had started a process to recover the land leased for the headquarters of Apple Daily and Next Digital due to contract breaches. Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai was charged with fraud last year, accused of improperly subleasing Apple's office space to other companies he controls.
Starting late Wednesday night, city residents started lining up outside stores to get copies of the paper's final edition. Apple printed 1 million copies, compared to recent runs of 80,000.
By Thursday morning, many convenience stores and newsstands had sold out. Residents traded tips on where they might still find copies. Outside a stall in the central business district, a dozen people lined up in the rain. Another newsstand had prepared 1,800 copies, up from its usual few hundred.
A 47-year-old IT worker calling himself Murphy bought 10 copies: a couple for himself, with the rest for colleagues and friends.
"This is terrible, as we all know what is happening right now," said Murphy, an online subscriber. "I hope something like Apple Daily will be back again in the future."
Hong Kong's national security police said Wednesday they had arrested a 55-year-old man on suspicion of collusion with foreign forces as part of an ongoing operation against Apple Daily, long known for its critical coverage of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
Local media identified the man as Yeung Ching-kee, one of the paper's editorial writers. Yeung, who has written more than 800 pieces under the pseudonym "Li Ping" since 2016, published his most recent piece on Tuesday.
A police spokesperson told Nikkei Asia that the operation against Apple Daily is continuing and that further arrests are possible. Next Digital prohibited visitors from entry on Wednesday while telling staff to work from "safe places."
Wednesday's arrest came less than a week after police mobilized over 500 officers to arrest five top editors and company executives and search their homes and Apple's offices.
Apple Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law and Next Chief Executive Cheung Kim-hung were formally charged on Saturday with violating Hong Kong's national security law in relation to the newspaper's publication of some 30 articles seen as calling for sanctions on Hong Kong or China by foreign governments and institutions.
The two have been denied bail. Lai, the founder of Apple and Next, is serving a 20-month prison term in relation to three convictions for involvement in unauthorized demonstrations in 2019 and faces possible life imprisonment over his own charge of collusion with foreign forces.
Next Magazine, an online publication of Next Digital that originally launched in print five years before Apple Daily, announced earlier Wednesday that it had ceased operations. This followed the closure of Apple's English language and financial news services and its webcasts earlier in the week.
Next Digital's board on Monday told staff Apple would cease publication from Saturday unless the authorities released at least part of 18 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.32 million) in the bank accounts of three group companies which were frozen when Cheung and Law were arrested. With the authorities warning local banks against dealing with Next accounts, the company has since had difficulty collecting payments due.
As a consequence of the cash crunch, staff were told Monday that they could resign immediately without any notice period. Many did, making it increasingly difficult to sustain news operations as the week progressed.
By contrast, Apple Daily's Taiwan edition, which ceased print publication last month, said Wednesday that it would continue to publish online, noting that it is financially independent of the Hong Kong version.
Ronson Chan Long-sing, the newly elected chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, described Apple Daily's closure as "heartbreaking" and condemned the arrest of Yeung, saying that it will set a dangerous precedent if a writer is found guilty for his words.
"Even before the executives are convicted, the authorities have found ways to end Apple's operations," he said, adding that the paper had been an important force driving the development of the city's media industry and had nurtured numerous talented journalists.
The EU also mourned Apple's shutdown in a statement Wednesday.
"The closure of Apple Daily's Hong Kong operations clearly shows how the national security law imposed by Beijing is being used to stifle freedom of the press and the free expression of opinions," it said. "The erosion of press freedom is also counter to Hong Kong's aspirations as an international business hub."
Law was the first journalist charged under the national security law imposed by Beijing a year ago. Meanwhile, the first trial under the law commenced Wednesday with no jury, a rarity under the city's British-built common law system.
Defendant Tong Ying-kit, 24, faces the potential of life imprisonment on charges of inciting separatism and terrorism for driving his motorbike into police lines while flying a flag emblazoned, "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times," a slogan prosecutors allege connotes support for the city's political independence. Prosecutors recently added a charge of dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm.
The trial is expected to last 15 days, with 22 witnesses summoned to testify.
Additional reporting by Kenji Kawase