Hong Kong arrests top Apple Daily staff using security law

Cheung Kim Hung (centre), CEO and Executive Director of Next Digital Ltd, is escorted by police into the Apple Daily newspaper offices in Hong Kong on June 17, 2021. AFP

HONG KONG (Bloomberg): Hong Kong’s national security police arrested five executives of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper for suspected breaches of the national security law, local news outlets reported Thursday (June 17), as the government escalated its campaign against well-known activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Those arrested included Apple Daily Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law and Next Digital Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Cheung Kim-hung, as more than 100 police officers descended on the newspaper’s Hong Kong headquarters.

Lai, who founded Next Digital, has been the most high-profile target of the government’s push against democracy advocates in the former British colony and is currently serving more than year in prison for attending unauthorized protests. On Thursday morning, trading of Next Digital shares was halted, without any reason being given.

The government said in a statement that four men and one woman aged 47-63 have been arrested "for collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security, ” without naming the people or the company. A separate statement said police raided "a media company” with a warrant issued under the national security law that allows "searching and seizure of journalistic materials.”

The move is the latest effort by Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to quell any form of dissent in the city, which was rocked by sometimes violent anti-China protests in 2019.

In response to the unrest, Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year that bars subversion, terrorism, secession and foreign collusion. The government has used the new powers granted under the law to detain dozens of prominent pro-democracy activists, lawyers and politicians, many of whom were denied bail and are now being held in jail before trial on subversion charges for seeking to win a local election and vote down the government’s budget.

"This fits into the pattern over the past year of the government using the national security law to target its top critics, ” said Tom Kellogg, the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

"This is a serious blow to press freedom in Hong Kong, and a direct attack on the journalistic work of Apple Daily, ” he continued.

"Whereas prior 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.”

Lai, a prominent and long-time critic of Beijing, has been one of the government’s most frequent targets. Police had earlier raided Apple Daily’s headquarters back in August, and since then authorities have layered on more national security charges against Lai, who is already serving 20 months in jail after being convicted for protests he attended in 2019.

His sentencing was condemned by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who called the charges "politically motivated” and said that Hong Kong and China were violating freedoms guaranteed under the city’s Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration in their attempt to quash dissent.

"Beijing and Hong Kong authorities are targeting Hong Kongers for doing nothing more than exercising protected rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of speech, ” Blinken said in an April statement.

Lai has also been charged with the national security offense of colluding with foreign forces to hurt China based on tweets and interviews Lai gave to international media outlets. The city’s Security Bureau has moved to freeze some of Lai’s assets and sent letters to some of his bankers, threatening them with years in jail if they deal with any of his accounts in Hong Kong.

On Thursday morning, Apple Daily reporters live-streamed the police operation taking place at their headquarters in the same way they has previously broadcast the sweep of their office in August. Police asked the newspaper’s journalists to leave the newsroom, the paper reported.

In email sent to readers yesterday, Law, the now-arrested Apple Daily editor, wrote that Hong Kong media were operating under "more and more laws restricting freedom of the press.” But he vowed the newspaper would carry on reporting.

"Is the national security law the biggest crisis of Apple Daily?” he asked, noting that identifying the government’s "red lines” were becoming increasingly important.

"No matter how great the pressure is, we will definitely be able to stand up, ” he added. "At the end of the tunnel, there must be light.”

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