The rise and fall of Hong Kong's Apple Daily and media magnate Jimmy Lai

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai received a 14-month jail sentence over an unauthorised assembly in October 2019.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai received a 14-month jail sentence over an unauthorised assembly in October 2019.PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily will be forced to shut "in a matter of days" after the authorities froze the company's assets under a national security law, an adviser to jailed owner Jimmy Lai told Reuters on Monday (June 21).

The following is a timeline of events leading up to this.

June 20, 1995: Apple Daily publishes its first edition.

Founded by businessman Jimmy Lai, the tabloid daily, with its critical reporting on China, is a runaway commercial success.

"As long as readers choose us, support our journalism, and agree with our position, no matter how strong the pressure becomes, we will be able to stand tall," the newspaper said in an editorial that day.

In 1994 Lai had called Chinese premier Li Peng the "son of a turtle egg" in a weekly magazine that he launched before the daily. The insult rankled Beijing.

July 8, 2019: Jimmy Lai meets United States vice-president Mike Pence and Security of State Mike Pompeo in Washington to discuss the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy over a contentious extradition Bill that has sparked mass protests.

The China state-owned Global Times calls Lai a "traitor" for "brazen collusion" with the West to fuel the Hong Kong protests.

June 30, 2020: China directly imposes national security law on Hong Kong without public consultation or city legislative involvement.

The law sets out punishment for anything China considers subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, of up to life in prison.

Aug 10: Hong Kong police arrest Lai, one of the most outspoken critics of Beijing, and eight others in a city-wide operation. Hundreds of police raid Lai's Next Digital headquarters, where his flagship Apple Daily is produced and published. He is released on bail.

Dec 3: Lai is taken into custody and charged with fraud related to the lease of a building that houses Apple Daily.

Dec 11: Lai is charged under the security law on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces and endangering national security — partly from having sought sanctions against Hong Kong.

Dec 23: Lai is granted bail and able to spend Christmas at home.

Dec 29: Lai resigns as chairman of Next Digital.

Dec 31: Lai is taken back into custody after a higher court overruled the bail decision following a wave of criticism by pro-Beijing voices who say he is a flight risk.

Feb 8, 2021: Lai's legal battle for bail reaches Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. A panel of five judges unanimously denies him bail saying the lower court applied an "erroneous line of reasoning".

April 12: "Defending freedom of speech is a dangerous job. It is our responsibility as journalists to seek justice," Lai writes from prison.

April 16: Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang warns an unspecified newspaper for dividing society. He says "fake news" could be linked to national security and the police may launch investigations into those who breach national security laws.

On the same day, Lai is jailed for 14 months for taking part in unauthorised assemblies during protests in August 2019.

May 11: Apple Daily's chief editor Ryan Law and its CEO reassure staff over rumours the Hong Kong authorities would shut the newspaper before July 1 — the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

May 14: The Hong Kong authorities freeze assets belonging to Lai, including all shares in Next Digital — the first time a listed firm has been targeted by national security laws in the financial hub. Lai now faces three charges under the security law including collusion with a foreign country.

May 27: Reuters reports that Hong Kong's security chief sent letters to Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank in May, threatening jail of up to seven years for any dealing with Lai's accounts in the city.

May 29: Lai receives a 14-month jail sentence for an unauthorised assembly in October 2019.

June 17: Police arrest five executives of Apple Daily, including chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung.

Hundreds of officers raid Next Media's headquarters and search its newsroom, seizing computers.

Law and Cheung are charged with "colluding with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security".

The authorities freeze HK$18 million (S$3.12 million) of Apple's assets.

June 19: Law and Cheung are denied bail by Judge Victor So.

June 20: Apple Daily marks its 26th anniversary. The paper says it has cash left for "a few weeks" of normal operations and it may struggle to pay staff.

June 21: An adviser to Lai tells Reuters Apple Daily will be forced to shut "in a matter of days".