Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily announced Wednesday it was printing its final edition after authorities froze its assets using a sweeping new national security law, silencing the city's most China critical media outlet.
The decision is the latest blow to Hong Kong's freedoms and will deepen unease over whether the international finance centre can remain a media hub as China seeks to stamp out dissent.
Apple Daily has long been a thorn in Beijing's side, with unapologetic support for Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China's authoritarian leaders.
Those same leaders have made no secret of their desire to see the newspaper shuttered and have used the new security law to bring about its rapid demise.
Owner Jimmy Lai, currently in jail for attending democracy protests, was among the first to be charged under the law after its imposition last year.
But the final chapter of the 26-year-old paper was written over the last week when authorities deployed the security law to raid the paper's newsroom, arrest six staff members and freeze its assets.
That last move crippled the paper's ability to conduct business and pay staff.
On Wednesday, Apple Daily announced its closure "out of consideration for the safety of its staff".
"Apple Daily decided that the paper will cease operations from midnight, and tomorrow (24th) will be the last publication day," the paper wrote on its website.
"Apple Daily's website will stop updates from midnight."
- Crackdown -
China imposed its security law on Hong Kong last year to stamp out dissent after the city was convulsed by huge and often violent democracy protests.
Authorities said their prosecution of Apple Daily was sparked by articles and columns that allegedly supported international sanctions against China, a view now deemed illegal.
It was the first time reporting and opinions published by a media outlet in Hong Kong had triggered the security law.
Five executives, including chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung, were detained on charges of colluding with foreign forces to undermine China's national security.
Law and Cheung were charged on Saturday and remanded into custody.
On Wednesday police made another arrest. Yeung Ching-kee -- who writes under the pen name Li Ping -- was one of the paper's top columnists and the lead writer of their editorials.
The decision to freeze Apple Daily's assets laid bare the sweeping powers now at the disposal of Hong Kong authorities to pursue any company or individual deemed to be a national security threat.
The security law does not require a court order or criminal conviction to freeze assets.
Multiple international media companies have regional headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted to the business-friendly regulations and free speech provisions written into the city's mini-constitution.
But the city has steadily plunged down an annual press freedom ranking by Reporters Without Borders, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year.
Mainland China languishes at 177th out of 180, above only Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.
- First trial -
China has hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the 2019 demonstrations.
Authorities initially said it would only target "a tiny minority".
But it has radically transformed the political and legal landscape of a city that China promised would be able to keep key liberties and autonomy after its 1997 return.
On Wednesday the first trial under the new law got under way.
Tong Ying-kit, 24, is accused of two new national security crimes -- terrorism and incitement to secession -- after he allegedly drove a motorbike into police while flying a protest flag that read "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times".
His trial is not being heard by a jury in a major departure from Hong Kong's common law traditions.
Instead it is being overseen by three judges specially picked by the government to hear national security cases.
Tong's case is unusual because he is the only Hong Konger so far charged under the security law with an explicitly violent act.
More than 60 people have now been charged under the law, including some of the city's best-known democracy activists, but their offences are related to political views or speech that authorities have declared illegal.
Under the law, China has jurisdiction over some cases and has allowed its mainland security agents to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time.
As well as the no-jury provision, the law has also removed the presumption of bail for non-violent crimes.
© 2021 AFP