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If one is looking for defiant, no-holds barred commentary against the Communist Party rule in Beijing, Hong Kong's Apple Daily could be a place to start. Founded in 1995, just before the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the paper introduced the territory to tabloid journalism with an anti-China stance. With the arrest of its owner Jimmy Lai—under the sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing—a colourful source of sensationalist political news in what was once an oasis of free speech is now endangered. Readers of Apple Daily lined up late into the night to buy copies in bulk after Lai was arrested on Monday. The paper printed four lakh more copies than its usual print run of one lakh. The crackdown has raised fears of greater muzzling of the free press in the territory.
Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai—the multimillionaire in the territory known for his avid support of the pro-democracy movement—was whisked off to his yacht for interrogation while some 200 police officers raided Apple Daily's office for nine hours. Lai's arrest under the new security law—which punishes anything China deems "subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces"—was seen as inevitable, given how the new law has been used to crack the whip on dissenters and the free press. But it is seen as the most high-profile arrest so far.
Apple Daily, the newspaper Lai founded under his listed company Next Digital, was always meant to be a rabble-rouser. Lai wanted it to be the "forbidden fruit" Adam and Eve did not eat, and hence named it after apple. In television ads just before it was first published, Lai is seen sitting with an apple on his head in a dark warehouse of sorts. There are men in suits with black eye-patches shooting a volley of arrows at a disinterested, unperturbed Lai who eats the forbidden apple anyway even as darts stick out of his chest.
Lai, who was smuggled into Hong Kong on a fishing boat and worked as a child labourer in a garment factory, had his political awakening after the Tiananmen crackdown. Attuned to mass-market ethos, Lai went on to become a successful businessman under intense political pressure. With Apple Daily, the once brash factory manager sought to revolutionise the news media landscape with a racy, low cost product, à la USA Today, which threw neutrality to the winds. "This was advocacy journalism, with a strong dose of saucy celebrity gossip," wrote CNN Business last year. Needless to say, advertisers with interests in mainland China avoid Apple Daily like the plague.
Apple Daily, conceived by a survivor like Lai, is also one of the first print media companies to pivot to digital and multimedia. It is now focussing on subscriptions to earn money after crippling losses. In June this year, it launched an English language online news service. There is an Apple Daily app which English readers can now download. A reviewer on Google Play writes, "Finally in English! Well done. This is vital to getting the news out that has not been censored by China"