In yet another a blow against Hong Kong’s press freedom, the government in Beijing showed its teeth with the arrest of five senior executives of Apple Daily, the popular anti-Beijing newspaper, and Next Digital, the Hong Kong-listed firm controlled by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai ,which operates the paper.
National Security Unit Senior Superintendent Steve Li told reporters on June 17 that the raid was launched at 6 a.m. that day and involved around 500 officers. Li said HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) worth of assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily have also been frozen.
The five were arrested for suspected violation of the National Security Law, comprising Next Digital chief executive officer Cheung Kim Hong, chief operating officer Royston Chow, Apple Daily chief editor Ryan Law, associate publisher Chan Pui-man and digital platform director Cheung Chi-wai. The arrests were announced by the Chinese government news agency Xinhua. The executives, aged between 47 and 63, were arrested “for collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Police also searched their homes, the Hong Kong government announced.
The arrests of the five “under Hong Kong’s Orwellian National Security Law destroy any remaining fiction that Hong Kong supports freedom of the press,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “China, which controls Hong Kong, may be able to eliminate the paper, which it sees as an annoying critic, but only at a steep price to be paid by the people of Hong Kong, who had enjoyed decades of free access to information.”
At a June 17 press briefing, Hong Kong National Security Chief John Lee said the arrests had nothing to do with normal journalism and were not targeted against press freedom. Some articles published in Apple Daily were part of a plan to collude with foreign forces by inviting unnamed countries to impose sanctions or take hostile activities against Hong Kong and China, Lee said. “This case involves a conspiracy.”
The Hong Kong government’s accusation of collusion with an unnamed foreign country came just four days after the G7 summit in the UK issued a communique calling on China to respect human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. The G7 is a group of the world’s seven richest nations, namely the US, UK, Japan, Germany, Canada, France, and Italy.
Jimmy Lai faces two charges under the security law. The 72-year old Hong Kong tycoon is currently serving a 20-month term in prison for various charges related to his involvement in protests which rocked the city in 2019 and 2020, including a 14-month jail sentence pronounced by Hong Kong District Judge Amanda Woodcock on May 28, as Asia Sentinel reported.
When the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in the middle of last year, there were fears that the draconian law might chill press freedom in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, but the law was vague regarding journalists. The arrest of the five people on June 17 and the charges against Lai made the law’s effect on journalism a hard reality which drew a clearer outline on what the law can do against the media.
The English-language version of Apple Daily reported on the police raid on its headquarters, “At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, hundreds of police officers also raided the headquarters of Apple Daily in Tseung Kwan O, blocking all entrances of the office. All staff members are required to register with their identity cards, staff ID, and personal information before they are allowed in. They can only enter the canteen and are prevented from accessing other areas of the office. Journalists are not allowed to return to their own desks, and are barred from filming or live-streaming the raid.”
A Chinese-language version of Apple Daily, which contained pictures and videos of the police raid, reported 500 police officers raided its headquarters. Shares of Next Digital halted trading at 9 am on June 17.
Under the security law, Hong Kong police searched and seized journalistic material in Apple Daily’s offices, the Hong Kong government announced on June 17.
The arrests came a few days after the Chinese authorities suppressed press freedom within mainland China. On June 9, several Chinese news portals and at least 27 Chinese local government websites carried an article calling for the Chinese people to enjoy more freedom of speech, written in May 2013 by Li Yongzhong, deputy dean of the China Discipline Inspection and Supervision College, an institute of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, a Chinese anti-corruption agency.
Shortly afterwards, this article was removed from local government websites, reported Epoch Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Falun Gong movement which the Chinese government deems a subversive cult. The appearance of this article in mainland Chinese websites and its subsequent removal reflects internal conflict within the Chinese government, said the Epoch Times article.
In a Chinese media report on October 16, 2014, Li Yongzhong praised Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan for heading China’s anti-corruption campaign.
The National Security Law poses a new threat to press freedom in Hong Kong and “is especially dangerous for journalists,” said Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Hong Kong 80th in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index. China ranked much lower, at 177th in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
At the press briefing, Hong Kong National Security Chief Lee told reporters, “Do your journalistic work freely according to the law, provided you do not break the law, especially the security law. If anybody’s act causes damage to the reputation of journalistic work because they are involved in a conspiracy, then it is only to the good and credibility of Hong Kong journalism if action is taken against criminals who use journalistic work as a tool.”
Lee’s warning drew a sarcastic Facebook post from David Webb, a Hong Kong corporate governance activist. Webb wrote on Facebook, “Aw, there you go again John, winning hearts and minds. I don’t know any of the suspects socially, but I do know that Basic Law Article 27 promises ‘freedom of association.’ Threatening their friends and family is just vulgar bullying. By the way, I subscribe to Apple Daily and occasionally read it. Hope that’s OK with you, but frankly, I don’t care if it isn’t.”
“P.S. – you’re off my Christmas card list,” Webb told Lee.
The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club expressed its concern over the arrests and said, “We are not pronouncing on the legalities of the situation or today’s actions. However the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is concerned that this latest action will serve to intimidate independent media in Hong Kong and will cast a chill over the free press, protected under the Basic Law.”
Lee hinted Apple Daily may be closed down when he said the government will “consider all options” on Hong Kong newspapers if they violate the security law.