Hong Kong's pro-democracy Apple Daily tabloid said it was a "victim of tyranny" in a defiant final edition on Thursday after it was forced to close under a new national security law, ending a 26-year run of taking on China's authoritarian leaders.
The sudden death of the popular newspaper -- which US President Joe Biden called a "sad day" -- is the latest blow to Hong Kong's freedoms, deepening unease over whether the international finance centre can remain a media hub as China seeks to stamp out dissent.
Queues formed across Hong Kong on Thursday as residents raced to snap up one of the one million copies Apple Daily said it planned to print. Many vendors sold out within minutes and were awaiting fresh deliveries.
The swansong front page featured the paper's own journalists waving goodbye to crowds outside its headquarters.
"Apple Daily is dead," deputy chief editor Chan Pui-man, who was arrested last week on a national security charge, wrote in a farewell letter to readers.
"Press freedom became the victim of tyranny."
In the working-class district of Mongkok, hundreds queued through the early hours of the morning to get their hands on the final edition, some chanting "Apple Daily, we will meet again!"
"It's very shocking," a 30-year-old woman, who was in the queue and gave her first name as Candy, told AFP.
"Within two weeks, authorities could use this national security law to dismantle a listed company."
- Asset freeze -
Hong Kong's most popular tabloid had long been a thorn in Beijing's side, with unapologetic support for the city's pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China's authoritarian leaders.
Biden, whose country is at diplomatic odds with Beijing on a number of issues, lamented a "sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world" and called on China to "stop targeting the independent press and release the journalists and media executives that have been detained".
Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai, currently in jail for attending democracy protests, was among the first to be charged under the national security law after its imposition last year.
But the final chapter was written over the last week when authorities cited the law to raid the newsroom, arrest senior executives and freeze its assets.
That last move crippled the paper's ability to conduct business or pay staff, and the news group decided Thursday's newspaper would be its last.
Overnight it took down its website, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Its edition in Taiwan will continue to operate. But some 1,000 people, including 700 journalists, are now out of work.
"Hong Kongers lost a media organisation that dared to speak up and insist on defending the truth," eight local journalist associations said in a joint statement, as they called on colleagues to dress in black on Thursday.
- Forbidden opinions -
China imposed its security law on Hong Kong last year after the city was convulsed by huge and often violent democracy protests in 2019.
The prosecution of Apple Daily was sparked by articles and columns that allegedly supported international sanctions against China, a view now deemed illegal.
Lai, chief editor Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung have all been charged with colluding with foreign forces to undermine China's national security and remanded into custody.
The decision to freeze Apple Daily's assets laid bare the sweeping powers now at the disposal of authorities to pursue any company deemed to be a national security threat.
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 many local and international outlets are questioning whether they have a future there.
- First trial -
Hong Kong has 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.
China and Hong Kong's authorities have hailed the security law for successfully restoring stability after the 2019 demonstrations and said media outlets must not "subvert" the government.
Authorities initially said the law 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 by Britain.
On Wednesday, the first trial under the new law got under way for a man accused of riding a motorbike into police officers.
His trial is not being heard by a jury, a major departure from Hong Kong's common law traditions.
His 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.