HONG KONG (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – On Thursday, June 17, five hundred Hong Kong police officers sifted through the computers and laptops of journalists with pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, the first case in which authorities cited reports from media as potentially violating national law. security law.
Towards dawn, police arrested five newspaper executives, and officers were later seen sitting at computers in the newsroom after entering with a warrant to seize journalistic material, including phones and laptops journalists.
The raid is the latest blow to media mogul Jimmy Lai, owner of the tabloid and avid Beijing critic, whose property was seized under security law and is serving prison terms for participating in rallies illegal.
In comments further alarming media freedoms in Hong Kong, Security Secretary John Lee described the newsroom as a “crime scene” and said the operation targeted those who use the reporting as a “tool. to endanger “national security.
He did not elaborate on the dozens of articles that police said they were targeting, but said the five were arrested for conspiring to “use journalistic work” to instigate foreign forces to impose sanctions on Hong Kong. and to China.
âNormal journalists are different from these people. Don’t collude with them,â he told reporters. “Do your job as a journalist as freely as you want according to the law, as long as you do not conspire or intend to violate (…) the law on national security.”
Chief Superintendent Li Kwai-wah said the tabloid had published dozens of reports dating back to 2019 that “urged foreign countries to impose sanctions,” without specifying the date of the most recent articles in question.
The legislation is not retrospective, but prosecutors can use actions that predate its implementation as evidence.
Police also froze HK $ 18 million (S $ 3.1 million) in assets held by three companies linked to Apple Daily and that the raid did not target the media industry as a whole.
The Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong said it strongly supported what it described as “righteous action” by the police.
This was the second time that police raided Apple Daily headquarters; 200 officers went last year to arrest Lai on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.
Lai has been in detention since December, has been denied bail under the security law, and is serving several sentences for participating in unauthorized rallies, including during mass protests for democracy in the center global financial institution in 2019.
The security law was Beijing’s first major move to put China’s turbulent city on an authoritarian path. It punishes everything Beijing considers to be subversion, secessionism, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces up to life imprisonment.
The national security police said in a statement that five company directors had been arrested on suspicion of collusion with a foreign country or with external elements.
Hong Kong police do not name those arrested.
Apple Daily said editor Ryan Law, chief executive Cheung Kim-hung, director of operations Chow Tat-kuen, deputy editor Chan Puiman and editor Cheung Chi-wai had all been arrested during the morning raids.
“This is a blatant attack on the editorial staff of Apple Daily,” Mark Simon, an adviser to Lai who is outside Hong Kong, told Reuters. “They stop the best editorials.”
Images released by Apple Daily showed police officers sitting at reporters’ desks and using their computers. A person broadcasting a live feed for the Apple Daily Facebook page said the building was cordoned off and reporters were unable to access certain floors or get their equipment or laptops.
Editor-in-chief Law was seen walking in handcuffs, flanked by police officers.
The general news office of the Apple Daily newspaper asked reporters in a text message seen by Reuters to continue their missions outside the building for the time being.
“This fits with last year’s model where the government used the National Security Act to target its main critics,” said Tom Kellogg, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.
“This is a blow to press freedom in Hong Kong, and a direct attack on the journalistic work of Apple Daily,” he added. “While previous attacks on Apple have focused on Jimmy Lai’s own advocacy, these arrests are – for the first time – focused on Apple Daily’s journalistic output.”
Mr. Steven Butler, Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the arrests “under Hong Kong’s Orwellian National Security Act destroy any remaining fiction that Hong Kong supports press freedom “.
âChina, which controls Hong Kong, might be able to eliminate the newspaper, which it considers an annoying critic, but only at a high price to be paid by the people of Hong Kong, who have benefited from decades of free access to information, “he added.
The move is the latest blow to Apple Daily after authorities last month ordered the freezing of jailed tycoon Lai’s shares in Next Digital, the newspaper’s publisher.
Trading in the company’s shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange was suspended on Thursday.
When asked how long he thought the newspaper could survive, Mr Simon said, âIt’s not ours. It’s theirs. There are 100 police officers in our newsroom. decide, not us. “
Thursday’s arrests are likely to reignite lingering concerns over whether Hong Kong still retains the constitutionally guaranteed free speech that has led many international news organizations to establish regional headquarters in the financial hub.
“Hong Kong has found itself with little freedom of speech under the National Security Act, which is really meant to silence dissent,” said associate professor Victoria Hui of the University of Notre Dame. âBeijing has mastered Hong Kong and will continue to do whatever it takes to silence any dissenting voices.â
In an email sent to readers on Wednesday, Mr Law, the editor of Apple Daily now arrested, wrote that the Hong Kong media were operating under “more and more laws restricting press freedom “.
But he vowed that the newspaper would continue reporting.
“Is the National Security Law Apple Daily’s Biggest Crisis?” he asked, noting that identifying government “red lines” was becoming increasingly important.
“No matter how hard the pressure is, we will definitely be able to stand up,” he added. “At the end of the tunnel, there must be light.”
Apple Daily is a shameless tabloid that mixes pro-democracy rhetoric with celebrity gossip and surveys of those in power and is popular in Hong Kong.
In May, Reuters reported that the Hong Kong security chief sent letters to Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years in prison for any dealings with the billionaire’s accounts in the city.
Lai’s assets were also frozen under the same law.