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Hong Kong authorities shut down the region's last independent news outlets


Someone is trying to preserve the news of the past in Hong Kong. Independent news about the present is getting hard to find. Under government pressure, the pro-democracy paper Apple Daily shut down, followed by other independent outlets. Now, anonymous volunteers have been archiving those news outlets' content, going back decades. NPR's Emily Feng reports on this effort to create a digital memory of a once-free press.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Like many people in Hong Kong, Mr. Ho was caught completely by surprise when pro-democracy paper Apple Daily suddenly said it was shutting down last July. Mr. Ho only wanted us to use his last name for fear of being prosecuted for national security crimes because he had been quietly archiving Apple Daily's content in anticipation that the feisty outlet would be forcibly closed by Hong Kong authorities.

HO: I wish I started earlier. I mean, I thought I have more time. But I know it's coming. It's just faster than most people imagined.

FENG: Apple Daily's publishers and some managers were then arrested on national security charges as part of Beijing's tightening control over Hong Kong. When the paper shut down, its website was taken offline as well. Mr. Ho and other volunteers managed to archive some of the digital content, but now they're relying on loyal readers to send in scanned physical copies of Apple Daily they may have saved, especially of older editions which were not digitized.

HO: Maybe there are people who can contact us and provide us with more of the missing pieces. We don't know who owns what.

FENG: The archivers are backing up Apple Daily using Arweave, an archival platform based on blockchain technology. Sam Williams, Arweave's founder, says the platform saves the data on hard drives across the world. That makes it effectively immune from hostile actors who might want to delete these backups.

SAM WILLIAMS: We like to think of it as kind of a Library of Alexandria 2.0. That is what we're aiming for. Except instead of being in a centralized place, which can, you know, burn down, it's spread all across the world, and it's kind of replicated in, you know, hundreds or even thousands of copies so that any one of those copies can go missing and the other copies just kind of take its place.

FENG: This archival effort has picked up pace as Hong Kong's remaining independent news outlets slowly take down their websites and even close operations. Last December, seven editors and board members at Stand News were arrested for national security crimes, causing the outlet to shut down. Citizen News, another outlet, said it was voluntarily dissolving days later. Here's Mr. Ho, the volunteer archiver.

HO: Imagine your - the central library of your country is burning. That is exactly what's happening in Hong Kong. So at this point, we just want to save as much content as possible.

FENG: Right now, the effort is moving in fits and starts because volunteer archivers have to ask each individual journalist whether they want their stories archived. Many reporters have requested their articles not be backed up. They're afraid their own writing might be used against them in court if they're charged under the national security law.

HO: It's like a collective memory of Hong Kong people, and it's forced by the government to shut it down. So we focus our efforts on Apple Daily. It's very different. It means a ton to Hong Kong people. It's 26 years of history.

FENG: And in this case, the archivers hope that documenting those years means history will not be written solely by Beijing.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEB WILDBLOOD'S "MUSCLE MEMORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.