Hundreds of Apple staff brace for ax

Finance | Sophie Hui 22 Jun 2021

Staff of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily have been told the newspaper could end operations on Saturday unless Hong Kong authorities release assets frozen as part of a national security investigation.

A board meeting was held yesterday to discuss the way forward and the board sent a letter to the Secretary for Security, John Lee Ka-chiu, asking him to unfreeze the company's assets so employees can be paid.

An internal message to 800 employees said if the funds are not forthcoming, no articles will be uploaded to the media outlet's digital platforms after 11.59pm on Friday, while the last newspaper will come out on Saturday morning.

Staff were told they could resign immediately if they wished and they would not have to work a notice period. Those who decide to stay can get severance pay after the newspaper shuts down.

It is understood that the management also asked department heads to see whether staff are staying or leaving as a wave of resignations followed in some departments.

The board was expected to meet again on Friday to make a final decision on whether to cease operations.

Sources said Apply Daily English news had its last day yesterday.

Staff were supposed to get their wages at the end of the month, with the company having less than 10 days to solve the issue if it does not want to breach the labor laws.

Mark Simon, an adviser to Next Digital founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, told Reuters that it had become impossible for the newspaper to conduct banking operations.

"We thought we'd be able to make it to the end of the month," Simon said. "It's just getting harder and harder. It's essentially a matter of days.

"Vendors tried to put money into our accounts and were rejected. We can't bank. Some vendors tried to do that as a favor. We just wanted to find out and it was rejected."

Lee issued an order on Thursday to freeze HK$18 million of assets of Apple Daily Ltd, Apple Daily Printing and the AD Internet.

The paper is accused of endangering national security by publishing a series of articles calling for foreign sanctions.

Police also arrested five senior executives of Next Digital and Apple Daily on Thursday.

Next Digital chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, Apple Daily editor-in-chief Ryan Law Wai-kwong and the three companies were charged with conspiracy to collude with a foreign country.

Three other Apple Daily senior executives - Chan Pui-man, Royston Chow Tat-kuen and Cheung Chi-wai - were arrested on Thursday and released on bail on Friday.

The 73-year-old Lai is serving a 20-month sentence in Stanley Prison for his role in unauthorized assemblies in 2019. He also faces charges of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and national security offenses that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

His shares in Next Digital and three private companies, and all assets in local bank accounts, were frozen last month.

Apple Daily celebrated its 26th anniversary on Sunday.

A supporter of the newspaper, Cheung, 25, said he will continue to buy the newspaper until its last publication.

"Yes, there might be minor mistakes or errors here and there, but Apple Daily is, in my view, the symbol of freedom of expression, which is stipulated in the Basic Law," Cheung said, adding he has read the newspaper since he was small.

"It would be a pity to have Apple Daily closed down, and I can see it as a clear and strong signal reminding us to be politically correct and this is what will happen if we work against the government," he said.

Meanwhile, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who is a small shareholder of Next Digital, has sent a legal letter to each board member, saying he reserves the right to take legal action.

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