A newsroom raided by the police. Journalists’ computers searched and harddrives taken away. An editor with hands tied behind his back.
Once inconceivable in Hong Kong, images of the sweeping operation targeting the leaders of the city’s most popular pro-democracy newspaper captured the chilling implications of a national security law imposed by Beijing to criminalize challenges to its authority.
Citing the law enacted last summer, the city’s pro-Beijing government deployed over 500 police officers on Thursday morning to search the office of Apple Daily and arrest the newspaper’s editor in chief, along with four other executives at the paper’s parent company, Next Digital. They were accused of publishing articles that advocated for foreign sanctions against Chinese authorities, a crime punishable up to life in prison according to the new national security law.
The newspaper’s chief editor, Ryan Law, became the first working journalist arrested under the law, which has already seen the bulk of the city’s opposition leaders locked up.
But the Thursday arrests made it clear that the authorities would use the law to punish editors and publishers, not just politicians, for articles deemed subversive, a move that could upend the city’s tradition of a free press.
An industry gauge of press freedom sank to an all-time low in 2020, as local reporters said they felt pressure to be less critical of Beijing. The New York Times, citing the “uncertainty” created by the security law, moved about a third of its staff to Seoul over the last year.
The other four people arrested included the paper’s associate publisher, veteran journalist Chan Pui-man, and Cheung Chi-wai, a director in charge of the paper’s animated news platform, the paper said.
On Thursday morning, Apple Daily’s own reporters livestreamed police officers entering the office building of the media company. In the newsroom, officers accessed computers at its metro news, graphics, and animation departments, and asked journalists to leave, the paper reported. Law was shown escorted by the police back to his office with his hands cuffed.
Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of police under the national security department, said the arrests were related to “dozens of articles” published by Apple Daily since 2019 that called for foreign institutions to sanction the Chinese government.
He said police had frozen 18 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.3 million) in Apple Daily’s assets and obtained a court warrant to seize journalistic materials. Journalists were barred from entering parts of the newsroom that were deemed a “crime scene,” Li said.
The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on more than 30 Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials over the erosion of political freedoms in the city since Beijing began clamping down on its 2019 pro-democracy protests. Countries including Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada have condemned the stifling of Hong Kong’s opposition.
Li said that the newspaper’s articles “gave a cause” for foreign countries to impose sanctions.
“We have strong evidence suggesting the articles mentioned above are an essential part of the conspiracy,” he told reporters outside Apple Daily’s building on Thursday
Li declined to name the articles, but warned members of the public not to share content that might make them look suspicious of endangering national security.
Following the arrests, Secretary for Security John Lee said authorities would take strong actions against those who use journalistic work as a “shield” to endanger national security.
“We are talking about a conspiracy in which the suspects try to make use of journalistic work to collude with a foreign country or external elements to impose sanctions or take hostile activities against Hong Kong and PRC,” Lee said at a separate press briefing on Thursday, using the initials for the People’s Republic of China. “We need to differentiate what these suspects have done from normal journalistic work.”
Asked if buying copies of Apple Daily or sharing its articles online would be seen as violating the national security law, Lee said people would not be held liable if they had no intention to endanger national security. He also declined to provide details on which articles were involved.
Beijing welcomed the Thursday operation. In a statement, the Chinese government’s powerful liaison office in Hong Kong said it supported the police's “act of justice” against Apple Daily.
The union of Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, said what the police did to its journalists was a blatant violation of press freedom.
“By merely suggesting some past news articles have breached NSL [national security law], they can treat editorial staff as criminals, journalistic work as crimes, and newsroom as a crime scene,” it said in a Facebook post. “As difficult as the current circumstances may be, we will carry on with our jobs with the aim to publish our papers as normal tomorrow.”
The 26-year-old newspaper has been regarded as a symbol of Hong Kong’s press freedom for its unrelenting criticism of the Chinese authorities. It has come under intense attacks from Chinese state media and pro-Beijing officials since massive pro-democracy protests broke out in the former British colony two years ago.
Authorities have accused the paper of fanning hatred toward China and supporting the anti-government unrest, with the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily calling it “more poisonous than the coronavirus.”
The paper’s founder Jimmy Lai, a prominent businessman and vocal critic of the Chinese government, has already been charged under the national security law. He was accused of calling for foreign sanctions and assisting former protesters’ attempt to escape to Taiwan, and Next Digital’s office was raided by the police last year in relation to his case. He is also serving a prison sentence for joining an unauthorized protest.
Willy Lam, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a former journalist, said authorities had targeted a high-profile newspaper in its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong, hoping it would serve as a warning for other pro-democracy media outlets.
“There’s very much an atmosphere of fear now among intellectual and journalistic circles in Hong Kong,” Lam said. “You will find fewer people are willing to take the risk of offending the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, because the risk is very real, as attested to by the arrests of the top executives and editors of Apple Daily.”
In the meantime, the newspaper continues to enjoy widespread support from local residents.
The day after the police arrested Lai, some Hong Kong people lined up at newspaper stands at 2 a.m. to snap up copies of the paper, which featured photos of Lai in handcuffs on the front page, in a show of solidarity.
Following the Thursday raid, some Hong Kong internet users left comments on the Facebook page of the Next Digital union saying they would still buy the newspaper even if it’s all blank pages.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.