Hong Kong’s Apple Daily could shut at weekend unless accounts are unblocked

·3 min read

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper and website could shut down this weekend if authorities do not agree to the board’s request to unfreeze its assets, after the arrest of its senior editors and executives last week.

According to various local reports on Monday afternoon, an internal memo said Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company, would seek restored access to its accounts so it can pay staff, but that if this did not happen by Friday it would make a decision to stop publication of the pro-democracy title.

The potential end of the 26-year-old paper comes after a police operation in which officers raided the homes of five executives, including Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief, Ryan Law, and arrested them under the national security law, before raiding the newsroom with an unprecedented warrant allowing the seizure of journalistic materials.

Police froze HK$18m (US$2.3m) in assets of three companies, Apple Daily Ltd, Apple Daily Printing Ltd and AD Internet Ltd. Mark Simon, a close adviser of the paper’s jailed owner, Jimmy Lai, said an additional $500m was in the locked accounts.

The board of Next Digital had held crisis meetings over the weekend and on Monday, urgently seeking information in order to make assessments about the future of the paper, according to Simon.

Related: Two years on since Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests – in pictures

“The only thing that matters is the secretary of security has locked up all the accounts, and any ability to work with the accounts, so no money equals no news,” he told the Guardian.

National security officials have blocked access to the company’s accounts, leaving it unable to pay staff and suppliers or accept funds, Simon said.

Related: Hongkongers queue to buy Apple Daily copies after editor-in-chief arrested

Apple Daily said on Sunday the freezing of its assets had left it with cash for “a few weeks” of normal operations.

Law and the company’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, were charged on Friday with colluding with foreign or external forces, and were denied bail. The three companies connected to Apple Daily are also being prosecuted for the same crimes.

Simon, who has relocated to the US, is wanted by Hong Kong police under the national security law. Law could face life in prison.

Police said the operation and charges related to more than 30 articles published in the paper since 2019 – despite the non-retroactive law only coming into force in 2020 – which allegedly called for foreign sanctions on the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

The police operation is a significant escalation in the government’s moves to stifle Hong Kong’s press, of which the pro-democracy tabloid was widely considered to be a primary target. Lai has been in jail since December on protest-related charges and awaiting trial for national security charges, including for alleged foreign collusion.

In an editorial published on Monday, Apple Daily said the impact of the raid and the arrests and charges of its leaders had been “huge”.

“Large-scale searches and arrests by the police have caused psychological distress, and journalists are much more concerned about stepping on the red line as they carry out their daily reporting work,” it said. “The aftermath of the searches and arrests has not been settled, and the political and legal pressure will continue to escalate.”

It said the use of the warrant to seize about 40 journalists’ computers was a warning to the rest of Hong Kong’s media. “The police were able to obtain news information that was originally confidential, meaning that journalists and news organisations can no longer effectively protect sensitive information, and identities of ‘whistleblowers’ could easily be revealed,” it said.

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