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Hong Kong police have for the first time determined the publication of certain newspaper articles to be a national security crime as they arrested the editor-in-chief, publisher and three other executives of Apple Daily whom they held accountable for more than 30 reports calling for foreign sanctions.
The force on Thursday cited the publication of the articles – understood to be mostly commentaries and opinion pieces, including several written by the tabloid’s jailed founder and opposition activist Jimmy Lai Chee-ying – as evidence of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and external elements.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu insisted the operation – which also involved the freezing of HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) worth of assets of three companies affiliated with Apple Daily – was not to target the press but only to go after a publication that used “news coverage as a tool” to harm national security.
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“The suspects tried to make use of journalistic works to collude with foreign countries or external elements to impose sanctions or take hostile action against Hong Kong and the central government. We need to differentiate what the suspects have done from normal journalistic work,” he said.
But the high-profile arrests, which marked the second swoop on Apple Daily since last August and the first time a top editor had been picked up under the national security law, sent shock waves through the city and internationally.
Several activist groups warned the crackdown had created a chilling effect designed to induce a culture of self-censorship in local media. Apple Daily remained defiant, as its executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung vowed the team would do its best to publish as usual despite having some of its newsroom computers confiscated by police.
The citywide raid began at 6am when officers swooped on the homes of editor-in-chief Ryan Law Wai-kwong, associate publisher Chan Pui-man, digital director Cheung Chi-wai, publisher of Apple Daily and CEO of parent company Next Digital Cheung Kim-hung, and the group’s chief financial officer Royston Chow Tat-kuen.
At around 7am, 200 officers entered the Tseung Kwan O premises of the tabloid to conduct a top-to-bottom sweep using a court warrant that, under the Beijing-imposed national security law, covered the power to search and seize journalistic materials.
They then blocked the building’s entrances and exits, asking all staff to register before entering the premises. Amid a heavy media presence, Cheung Kim-hung, Law and Chan were seen being escorted into the offices in handcuffs.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah of the National Security Department said they had found more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily since 2019 – before the imposition of the national security law last June – which had allegedly called for other countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and the mainland.
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“There’s very strong evidence that the questionable articles played a very crucial part in the conspiracy, which provided ammunition for foreign countries, institutions and organisations to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China,” he said, while reminding Apple Daily staff to be “careful” to avoid doing anything further that might violate the law.
He said the editorial pieces had breached Article 29 of the national security law, which bans anyone from requesting or conspiring with a foreign country, institution or individual to impose sanctions against the city and mainland China.
Li refused to reveal the list of the offending pieces, only saying they had appeared in print and online in both Chinese and English.
A police source said most of those cited were commentaries and opinion pieces, several of which were penned by Lai, the paper’s 73-year-old founder. “Most of these articles were published with bylines that were not the real names of the writers or columnists,” the source said, adding that police were still trying to identify them.
Lai was arrested last August for suspected national security and fraud offences along with nine others and subsequently charged with two counts of collusion and conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and remanded in custody without bail. He is now serving a 20-month sentence for his role in three separate unauthorised protests in 2019 last year.
At a press conference on Thursday, security chief Lee defended his decision to freeze the assets of the three affiliated Apple Daily companies, namely Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited.
The HK$18 million, Lee said, belonged to a “criminal syndicate”, noting it was internationally acceptable to freeze accounts in order to prevent “criminals benefiting from the money, or continuing to commit crimes using the money”.
Lee ducked questions on whether buying Apple Daily and the stock of the company or sharing its news articles would also constitute an offence, and whether the authorities would ban the tabloid before July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, as widely speculated.
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But he said law enforcers would crack down severely on acts endangering national security with any effective measure, and continue investigations to see if anyone within or outside the company was involved in abetting or supporting national security crimes.
Lee also urged journalists to cut ties with the arrested executives.
“The suspects have been arrested on strong evidence that they conspired to endanger national security. It is your choice if you will regard them as [fellow journalists],” he said.
Normal journalistic work should continue freely and lawfully in Hong Kong, he added.
Asked about the impact of the arrests on media freedom, he replied: “I do not envisage any professional journalists would be conspiring to do any act to endanger national security. So the answer is simple – do your journalistic work as freely as you like in accordance with the law provided you do not conspire or have any intention to break the Hong Kong law and certainly not the Hong Kong national security law.”
In an open letter to its readers, Apple Daily said: “Today’s Hong Kong feels unfamiliar and leaves us speechless. It feels as though we are powerless to stop the regime from exercising its power as it pleases.”
The tabloid also revealed that after five hours of the police raid at its headquarters, 38 journalists’ computers were seized.
Next Digital’s trade union strongly condemned the raid, saying it reflected the immense power granted to police under the national security law. The union expressed fears authorities could “label journalistic work as criminal acts and even turn a newsroom into a crime scene”.
The union reassured readers that Apple Daily would still be printed on Friday.
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing said the police operation had intensified the chilling effect on media freedom.
“The operation proves that the national security law has been weaponised to target certain media outlets,” he said. “Members of the public will refrain from sending tips to journalists on issues of public interest, as media outlets may not be able to guarantee the security of journalistic materials.”
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The Hong Kong News Executives Association urged the authorities to handle the case in an open and transparent manner to alleviate concerns.
“The association reaffirms that the freedom of news editing, reporting and speech is an important cornerstone of Hong Kong which cannot be damaged or weakened. The government and all sectors in the society need to safeguard and cherish it,” it said in a statement.
But Beijing’s top office in Hong Kong swiftly endorsed the crackdown, saying it supported all efforts aimed at maintaining national security and the city’s prosperity and stability.
“Freedom is not without restrictions, and [the suspects] cannot cross the bottom line of national security … freedom of the press is not a shield for illegal activities,” a spokesman for Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement.
British foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the crackdown demonstrated Beijing was using the law to target dissenting voices.
The Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office hit back to demand that Western politicians and media stop their criticism of Thursday’s arrests.
“The external interfering forces must retract their black hands, which have been destroying Hong Kong’s rule of law in the guise of press freedom,” a spokesman for the office said.
Beijing’s national security office in Hong Kong said it firmly supported the police operation.
“Under the national security law, all organisations and individuals need to follow the law … and must not engage in acts endangering national security,” a spokesman said.
The World Association of News Publishers and the World Editors Forum jointly condemned the arrests and called for the immediate release of the five, saying national security police continued to target the media company and its “outspoken pro-democracy owner” Lai.
They also urged the Hong Kong authorities to recognise that journalism was not a crime and that journalists should not be criminalised for doing their jobs.
Trading in the shares of Next Digital was suspended at 8.46am, in the wake of the arrests, until further notice.
Additional reporting by Ngai Yeung, Chris Lau and Christy Leung
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This article Hong Kong national security law: 5 Apple Daily arrests for alleged foreign collusion, marking first time police deem publication of certain newspaper articles to be a crime under Beijing-imposed legislation first appeared on South China Morning Post