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Hong Kong arrests top Apple Daily editors using security law

Hong Kong arrests top Apple Daily editors using security law

5 min. 17.06.2021
Hong Kong Police Force said the police had frozen HK$18 million worth of assets belonging to three Apple Daily companies
Police officers leave the Apple Daily newspaper offices in Hong Kong on June 17, 2021.
Police officers leave the Apple Daily newspaper offices in Hong Kong on June 17, 2021.
Photo credit: AFP

Hong Kong arrested the three most senior editors at Jimmy Lai’s pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper along with two top executives for suspected breaches of its sweeping national security law, generating fresh concerns about diminishing press freedom in the former British colony.

Those arrested included Next Digital Ltd. Chief Executive Officer and Apple Daily publisher Cheung Kim-hung and Chief Operating Officer Royston Chow, as well as the paper’s Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law and deputy editors Chan Pui-man and Cheung Chi-wai. Around 500 police officers descended on the newspaper’s Hong Kong headquarters on Thursday morning, with Apple Daily tweeting that police officers were accessing journalists’ computers.

“The action taken isn’t related to normal journalistic work,” John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary, told reporters on Thursday. “The action targeted the use of journalistic work as a tool to engage national security. Normal journalists are different from these people. Please keep a distance from them.”

Lai, who founded Next Digital, has been the most high-profile target of the government’s push against democracy advocates in Hong Kong. He is currently serving more than year in prison for attending unauthorized protests and faces additional charges under the security law that China imposed on the city last year. On Thursday morning, trading of Next Digital shares was halted, without any reason being given.

Mark Simon, a top adviser to Lai, confirmed the arrests and said the police were falsely labeling the paper’s top three editors as company directors in order to mask the fact that authorities were now using the security law to arrest journalists.

“They’re looking to cut off the head of the editorial department,” Simon said in an interview. “The police saying these are company directors is a blatant attempt to not be accused of press suppression. But they are directly attacking editorial people. They are rounding up journalists. They are arresting journalists now.”

Assets Frozen

In a press conference outside the newspaper’s offices, Hong Kong Police Force National Security Department officer Li Kwai-wah said the police had frozen HK$18 million worth of assets belonging to three Apple Daily companies. The newspaper had published dozens of articles that gave foreign powers “ammunition” to sanction Hong Kong and China, Li said, adding the newspaper office was now a crime scene and the warrant allowed them to seize and access digital devices.

How China Is Tightening Its Grip on Hong Kong’s Media Scene

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. The government has used the national security law -- which bars subversion, terrorism, secession and foreign collusion -- 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.

‘Serious Blow’

“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.”

Hong Kong Court Hands Jimmy Lai Another Jail Term for Protests

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.

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.

Simon, Lai’s adviser, said the government is now trying to preempt the judicial process.

“The government is not content to let the court process play out, so they’re using the police,” Simon said. Referring to public campaigns in Hong Kong to support the paper in times of crisis by either buying copies of Apple Daily or purchasing Next Digital shares, he added: “They keep trying to kill us, but the people of Hong Kong keep supporting us. So now they’re reduced to this.”

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.

‘Red Lines’

The arrests on Thursday are likely to reignite ongoing concerns about whether Hong Kong still retains the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech that has led numerous international news organizations to establish regional headquarters in the finance hub.

“Hong Kong has been left with little free speech under the national security law, which is really aimed at silencing all dissent,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. “Beijing has reined in Hong Kong and will continue to take whatever it takes to silence any dissenting voices.”

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” was 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.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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