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Apple Daily's fate puts Hong Kong independent media on high alert

Stand News axes articles and halts donations in preparation for crackdown

Hong Kong's Stand News has taken down sensitive articles and stopped donations to prevent money going to "waste" if its accounts are frozen. (Screenshot from Stand News website) 

HONG KONG -- Independent news outlets in Hong Kong are rushing to take down articles and suspend donations, among other precautions, as the shutdown of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily sends a deep chill through the territory's once-freewheeling media industry.

Online publisher Stand News, one of the largest nonprofit media outlets in Hong Kong, announced this week that it would remove most opinion articles published on its site. Some were penned by activists now in jail or in exile, and discussed sensitive topics such as foreign sanctions.

Largely supported by public donations, Stand News also halted its online subscription plan in a preemptive move. It said it did not want to "waste the funds from supporters" in case its bank accounts are frozen.

Instead, the company plans to rely on its reserves to keep running for the next nine to 12 months.

Apple Daily printed its last edition and ceased local operations last week, after Hong Kong's national security police froze $18 million worth of assets held by three subsidiaries -- as well as all the assets of its owner, Jimmy Lai. The paper's parent company, Next Digital, was also set to close on Thursday, the 26th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to China as well as the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Police have so far arrested seven Apple Daily senior executives, editors and opinion writers on national security grounds. Fung Wai-kong, a senior journalist responsible for the paper's English edition, was detained at Hong Kong International Airport as he tried to leave. 

"The company has learned an important lesson from the Apple Daily crackdown," said a Stand News journalist on condition of anonymity. "We all know the [shutdown] day will come, so the management is mapping out plans to prepare for that. All colleagues have prepared for the worst but are committed to staying until the end."

Stand News is taking an additional precaution by issuing paychecks at the beginning of the month, after witnessing how Apple Daily was unable to pay staff once the assets were frozen. The publisher also terminated the employment contracts of most workers and rehired them on new terms, while it had the chance to compensate them.

Founded in 2014, Stand News rose to prominence following extensive and award-winning reporting on the 2019 protests. It has become one of the city's most popular news sources, with over 1 million followers on Facebook.

Other online media players are scurrying as well. 852 Post said it has removed all videos from its platform due to "safety concerns," while Winandmac Media, a small outlet, said it has canceled its business registration in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said recent developments are "extremely worrying" and urged the government to respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law, the city's de facto constitution.

"Hong Kong's prosperity is underpinned by its free flow of information, and well-established checks and balances," the association wrote in a statement on Monday. "If the media cannot operate at ease, their functions as the Fourth Estate would be completely destroyed."

Despite the tightening constraints on press freedom, news outlets have pledged to forge on with their daily on-the-ground reporting. The Hong Kong Free Press, an independent English online media organization, said it would continue normal journalistic work while trying its best to protect sources and ensure security.

"We disagree with reports and analysts claiming press freedom is now 'dead,'" HKFP's founder Tom Grundy wrote on its website. "My staff and I are among several independent outlets that are still around. We are getting on with work, and we are staying put."

Cherian George, professor and associate dean of the school of communications at Hong Kong Baptist University, echoed Grundy's view.

"Even Apple Daily's death is certainly not the end of anti-Beijing media in Hong Kong," George said at a forum on the national security law on Tuesday. "Hong Kong will continue to have media on the fringes even if mainstream media are tamed."

George said that "Hong Kong has the money and the demand," drawing a contrast with Singapore, where he is originally from. "It is very, very clear that Hong Kong's population is highly politicized and probably willing to pay for independent media in a way that Singaporeans aren't."

The veteran media observer speculated on what further repression the government might take to extinguish outspoken media organizations. "You will probably see a cat-and-mouse game," he said.

Additional reporting by Kenji Kawase.

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