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Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper announces closure, conceding defeat to China's Communist Party

Popular Hong Kong newspaper closes its doors
Popular Hong Kong newspaper closes its doors 03:01

Hong Kong — Hong Kong's last pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily, will go dark from the end of this week, the paper's board of directors confirmed on Wednesday. The board blamed the imminent closure on "the current circumstances prevailing" in the once-semi-autonomous Chinese territory. 

Those "circumstances" are China's methodical crackdown to silence dissent, including in Hong Kong, a territory that was, until only about a year ago, an oasis of democracy, albeit limited, on Chinese soil.

"Apple Daily in its print form will come to an end no later than the last edition on Saturday 26 June 2021," the board said in a statement. With the liberal newspaper's closure, China's Communist Party is dealing a massive blow to press freedom in Asia.

Apple Daily started pulling the plug on many of its key operations earlier this week, even before a deadline set by its board for the end of this week. The paper has been unable to pay its staff, as the Chinese government has frozen its financial assets and arrested at least six key members of its management team.

As CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports, the paper, which just marked its 26th anniversary on Sunday, has been a relentless critic of leaders in Hong Kong and their backers in Beijing. As China asserted virtually complete control over the once semi-autonomous region over the past year, the paper became a top target for a takedown. 

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. The statement from the board on Wednesday confirmed what many employees had told CBS News they expected — that the government's clampdown would be the death knell for the last bastion of a free press in the city.

Staffers told CBS News on Monday that press freedom was dead in Hong Kong.

Last week, about 500 police officers raided Apple Daily's headquarters, arresting the editor-in-chief and four top executives. They've all 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. 

Police officers at the headquarters of Apple Daily in Hong Kong
Police officers are seen at the headquarters of Apple Daily in Hong Kong, China June 17, 2021. Apple Daily/Handout via REUTERS

Some of the Apple Daily workers told Inocencio that the atmosphere in the office this week 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 Jimmy Lai, 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.

Voices from Hong Kong: Businessman Jimmy Lai 02:03

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.

An employee stacks freshly printed papers onto a pallet in
An employee stacks freshly printed papers onto a pallet in the printing facility of the Apple Daily newspaper offices in Hong Kong, June 22, 2021. Geovien So/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty

On Wednesday, Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab slammed "the forced closure of Apple Daily by the Hong Kong authorities," calling it "a chilling blow to freedom of expression." 

"It is crystal clear that the powers under the National Security Law are being used as a tool to curtail freedoms and punish dissent — rather than keep public order," he said in a statement.  

Apple Daily had asked the government to unfreeze some funds so it could pay its staff. It was clear from the board's decision on Wednesday that they did not expect that to happen.

CBSNews.com's Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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