Hong Kong — China's Communist Party is dealing a massive blow to press freedom in Asia. Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper has started pulling the plug on many of its key operations even before a deadline its board of directors set for the end of this week.
The liberal, which just marked its 26th anniversary on Sunday, has been a relentless critic of leaders in Hong Kong and their Beijing backers. As China asserted virtually complete control over the once semi-autonomous Hong Kong over the past year, the paper became a top target for a takedown.
CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio was the only U.S. broadcaster inside Apple Daily's newsroom on Monday evening as the company streamed its last digital news program. As the anchor signed off, tears started to roll in the control room.
By Tuesday, Apply Daily had stopped updating its English-language website and English-language Twitter feed.
Members of the paper's staff told CBS News that press freedom was dead in Hong Kong. Some left with bags and boxes of personal items on Monday, while others continued to work overnight to prepare the next day's paper – potentially one of its last.
After 26 years, the halls could soon go completely dark. Apple Daily has been unable to pay its staff, as the Chinese government has frozen its financial assets. Last week, about 500 police officers, arresting the editor-in-chief and four top executives.
They have been accused of violating a controversial new "national security" law imposed on Hong Kong by China, alleging they called for foreign sanctions against both China and Hong Kong's leaders over the government crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
Some of the Apple Daily workers told Inocencio that the atmosphere in the office on Monday was akin to a funeral. But others found solace, even joy, in the paper's years of accomplishments.
"We want to have happy memories," one woman said. "I don't cry."
Apple Daily's 72-year-old founder, who was arrested last August, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Reviled by Beijing because of his strident calls for full democracy in Hong Kong, Lai has been charged with various offenses — also under the security law — including foreign collusion.
Purported collaboration with foreign entities is a firm red line in Beijing's national security law, which was brought in as a reaction to the huge anti-government protests that filled Hong Kong's streets in 2019.
The U.S. has slammed the law as "a tool to silence dissent."
Hong Kong's Beijing-appointed chief executive Carrie Lam says the legislation was needed to protect the country, not prohibit journalism.
"All those accusations made by the U.S. government, I'm afraid, are wrong," she asserted.
In 2019, Lai told CBS News he was not afraid for his own future. Inocencio asked him then whether he believed it would be accurate to say, bluntly, that Beijing hated him.
"Yes, it's an honor!" replied the businessman. "It's a badge of honor."
Apple Daily has asked the government to unfreeze some funds so it can pay its staff. The paper expects to know by Friday whether that will happen.
Many staff believe the government has little reason to give the paper a chance to continue its operations. If it doesn't, the last Apple Daily newspaper will publish on Saturday.