Hong Kong police have arrested editors and executives of a newspaper owned by pro-democracy mogul Jimmy Lai in the first use of the territory’s national security law directly against journalists.
Apple Daily said at least 100 police raided his offices early Thursday, asking reporters arriving for work to register their identities and preventing them from filming the raid or going to their office. Instead, reporters were invited to gather in a separate part of the building.
Police said the raid was aimed at gathering “evidence of a case of an alleged violation of national security law.” They used a warrant to search and seize journalistic material.
China introduced the new security law almost a year ago to quell dissent after the anti-government protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
The law paved the way for a repression on the city’s civil liberties, with mass arrests of political activists and the targeting of anyone deemed disloyal to Beijing, such as teachers and judges.
While Thursday’s arrests were not the first go against the media under the crackdown, it was the first time the authorities invoked the security law in an action against journalists.
The Security Act, which punishes crimes such as subversion and collusion with foreign elements, carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
Lai has already been imprisoned in a separate case and his the assets have been frozen, including its 71 percent stake in Next Media, the company that owns Apple Daily.
Those arrested on Thursday included Ryan Law, editor of Apple Daily and Nick Cheung, online editor, according to the newspaper. Cheung Kim-hung, chief executive of Next Digital, Royston Chow, chief operating officer, and Chan Pui-man, associate editor, were also arrested.
Police said they “arrested five directors of a company” under the security law for “colluding with a foreign country or with outside elements aimed at endangering national security.”
Hong Kong Police Chief Chris Tang reported a crackdown on the press, calling for “fake news” laws that journalists fear giving the authorities more powers to control the media.
He named the Apple Daily, a popular tabloid known for its willingness to confront and criticize the government, as a possible target for further police action. The diary was raided in August of last year.
Critics say the Security Act degraded rights such as free speech that Hong Kong people were promised when China took possession of UK territory in 1997.
A Next Media reporter said employees were “mentally prepared” for the arrest of editors, but were shocked at the scale of the police raid. “It completely overrides 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 issues.
Despite the attacks and the financial uncertainty created by the freezing of Lai’s assets, the newspaper pledged to continue publishing.
Next Digital announced on Thursday that it will stop trading in shares.