Hong Kong police have arrested senior editors and executives of a newspaper belonging to pro-democracy mogul Jimmy Lai in the first use of the territory’s national security law directly against journalists.
Apple Daily, a popular tabloid newspaper known for its willingness to confront and criticise the government, said at least 100 police raided its offices early on Thursday. Officers instructed reporters arriving for work to register their identities and prevented them from filming the raid or going to their desks. Instead, the journalists were told to gather in a separate part of the building.
Police said the raid aimed to gather “evidence for a case of suspected contravention of the National Security Law”. They used a warrant to search for and seize journalistic materials.
China introduced the harsh law almost a year ago to quell dissent after Hong Kong’s anti-government protests in 2019.
The law has paved the way for a crackdown on the city’s civic freedoms, with mass arrests of political activists and the targeting of anyone seen as disloyal to Beijing, such as schoolteachers and judges.
While Thursday’s arrests were not the first move against the media under the clampdown, it was the first time the authorities have cited the law in an action against journalists.
The security law, which punishes crimes such as subversion and collusion with foreign elements, carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Lai has already been jailed in a separate case and his assets have been frozen, including his 71 per cent shareholding in Next Media, the company that owns Apple Daily.
Those arrested on Thursday included Ryan Law, Apple Daily’s chief editor and Nick Cheung, an online editor, according to the newspaper. Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, Royston Chow, chief operating officer, and Chan Pui-man, an associate publisher, were also detained.
Police said they had “arrested five directors” for “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary, said the arrest has nothing to do with normal journalistic practices. “They are different from ordinary journalists, do not engage in any relations with them and keep a distance from them,” he said.
Apple Daily was accused of involvement in a conspiracy to encourage foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong by publishing articles that encouraged such a move, they added.
“This action isn’t targeting the media but an organisation that violated the national security law,” said Steve Li, a police senior superintendent.
Hong Kong’s police chief Chris Tang has previously called for “fake news” laws that journalists fear would hand authorities greater powers to police the media.
He has singled out Apple Daily as a possible target of further police action. The newspaper was raided in August last year.
Critics say the security law has degraded rights such as freedom of expression that Hong Kongers were promised when China took possession of the territory from the UK in 1997.
One journalist at Next Media said employees were “mentally prepared” for senior editors to be arrested but were shocked by the scale of the police raid. “It’s completely overriding the freedom of the press,” they told the Financial Times.
“I am really worried for Hong Kong people if Apple Daily is lost . . . Other newspapers will be too afraid to report on sensitive topics.”
Despite the attacks and the financial uncertainty created by the freezing of Lai’s assets, the newspaper has vowed to continue publishing.
Next Digital announced a share trading halt on Thursday.