In Hong Kong, Jimmy Lai’s Next Digital Says It Has Been Forced to Close

HONG KONG — Next Digital, a Hong Kong media firm that has printed vehement criticism of the Chinese authorities for many years, mentioned on Sunday that it might take steps to shut down after an official crackdown had left it with no manner to function.

In a press release, the corporate’s board of administrators referred to as for the liquidation of the corporate and mentioned that they’d resigned.

“We have concluded that the best interests of shareholders, creditors, employees and other stakeholders will be served by an orderly liquidation,” it mentioned, including that it hoped such a transfer would permit funds to collectors and former workers.

The announcement was the most recent in a collection of blows to Hong Kong’s as soon as freewheeling press, which has been stifled by the nationwide safety regulation that the mainland Chinese authorities imposed on the previous British colony to quell dissent greater than a 12 months in the past.

Next Digital’s founder and controlling shareholder, Jimmy Lai, is in jail, charged with crimes that embody violating the safety regulation. In June, Hong Kong officers froze a number of the firm’s financial institution accounts, forcing its flagship newspaper, Apple Daily, to shut. Several prime editors and executives at Next Digital, moreover Mr. Lai, have been charged with crimes.

Apple Daily, based in 1995, was the main pro-democracy voice within the Hong Kong media, often denouncing China’s ruling Communist Party and its allies within the native authorities. Its aggressiveness quickly made highly effective enemies for Mr. Lai, who was pressured to unload a clothes chain after the paper criticized a Chinese chief in print.

Under the nationwide safety regulation, which China imposed after a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2019 that challenged its rule in Hong Kong, Mr. Lai and his media empire shortly grew to become a goal.

Next Digital mentioned it might have remained solvent had its financial institution accounts not been frozen. While it had confronted promoting boycotts led by supporters of the Chinese authorities, Apple Daily was broadly learn, and it bought 1,000,000 copies of its last version. Next Digital’s inventory, which was suspended from buying and selling in June, had soared at occasions over the previous 12 months, as supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy trigger purchased shares to present help for the corporate.

Next Digital famous that it had been pressured to shut earlier than any of the instances towards its senior figures had gone to trial. Its supporters have argued that the actions taken towards Next Digital and its publications not solely hurt media freedom within the metropolis, but additionally injury property rights and Hong Kong’s fame as place to do enterprise.

“When you abuse state power and freeze bank accounts and throw people in jail — the editor in chief, the chief executive, the founder — it smacks of a banana republic,” mentioned Mark Clifford, an impartial nonexecutive director of Next Digital. “This is not what made Hong Kong a center of international investment or the image that it prides itself in, with rule of law and protection of property rights.”

Jimmy Lai, Next Digital’s founder, was escorted to a jail van after a court docket listening to in December. He is presently in jail, charged with crimes that embody violating the nationwide safety regulation.Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Lai is anticipated to be tried later this 12 months on a fraud cost associated to a sublease of the corporate’s headquarters, in addition to fees introduced beneath the nationwide safety regulation. Those fees allege that he colluded with overseas powers by funding a marketing campaign that took out adverts, in publications together with The New York Times, that referred to as for American sanctions towards Hong Kong.

Mr. Lai based the corporate that grew to become Next Digital in 1990 with a single journal. It grew to embody Apple Daily, which finally launched an version in Taiwan. The board’s assertion mentioned that the administrators had been assured that Mr. Lai would be part of them in thanking the corporate’s readers through the years.

Next Digital’s issues have compounded in current months. Hong Kong’s monetary secretary, Paul Chan, appointed an inspector to examine the corporate’s monetary affairs, a seldom-used energy beneath native regulation. The Financial Reporting Council, Hong Kong’s auditing watchdog, opened an investigation into the corporate in August. And auditing corporations have been refusing to work with Next Digital, elevating doubts about whether or not it might give you the chance to submit monetary statements on the finish of September as required.

With its accounts frozen, the corporate has been unable to pay excellent wages to about 700 editorial workers. Some have discovered different jobs or began new media ventures, masking topics like on-line leisure and horse racing, however many stay unemployed. A liquidation of the corporate’s property might assist workers obtain a number of the cash they’re owed.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association has distributed money vouchers to former journalists from Next Digital publications. But the journalists have been unable to obtain authorities funds designated for laid-off workers of bankrupt firms as a result of Next Digital nonetheless has cash within the financial institution, though it can’t entry it.

The firm closed the Taiwan print version of Apple Daily in May and has been in talks to promote its remaining digital operations. Other property, together with the Taiwan operations and the corporate’s archives, would more than likely be bought as soon as the corporate begins liquidation.