Hong Kong raids newspaper offices, arrests editor, executives under security law
The raid on Apple Daily and the arrests, punishable by life in prison, shows how dramatically space is shrinking for the city’s once-free press
By Shibani Mahtani,
HONG KONG — Police on Thursday raided the offices of the Apple Daily newspaper, known for its support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement, and arrested the tabloid’s chief editor and four other executives on suspicion of violating the city’s national security law. Authorities also froze the paper’s assets.
The early morning operation highlighted the draconian steps that authorities are taking to shut down any remaining space for dissent — including silencing media critical of the Chinese government. Press freedom is supposed to be guaranteed under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
The warrant allowed officers to seize “journalistic materials” — the first time that they have exercised such powers under the security law. Police scoured reporters’ computers, files and notes, and cited as the basis for the arrests dozens of Apple Daily articles that called for Western sanctions against Hong Kong and Chinese officials. The United States last year imposed sanctions on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other figures for their role in eroding freedoms in the city.
“We have strong evidence that the questionable articles play a very crucial part of the conspiracy, which provides ammunition for foreign countries” to impose sanctions, said Li Kwai-wah, senior superintendent of the police force, in a news conference.
Earlier, the five executives were taken from their homes by officers from the Hong Kong police’s national security unit, and arrested for “collusion with a foreign country.” Police said they also searched their homes.
Apple Daily chief editor Ryan Law, second from right, is arrested by police officers in Hong Kong on Thursday.
An Apple Daily live stream of the raid on the newspaper showed dozens of police cars surrounding the premises and officers entering the building, taking away boxes of documents. In their own live stream, Hong Kong police said more people could be arrested.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, characterized the five Apple Daily executives as being part of a conspiracy.
“We are not talking about media or journalist work,” he said. “We are talking about a conspiracy in which suspects try to make use of journalistic work to collude with a foreign country or external elements.”
Collusion with foreign powers is one of four broadly worded crimes under the security law, carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. Other articles in the law since it passed last June have significantly eroded basic freedoms in Hong Kong, removing protections for journalistic activities. The New York Times announced shortly after the law took effect that it would move staff from Hong Kong, which had been its Asian base, to Seoul.
This is the second time Apple Daily, founded and owned by tycoon Jimmy Lai, has been raided since the security law came into force.
In the first raid last August, journalists were allowed to live-stream as police entered their offices and rifled through papers. But this time, hundreds of police officers blocked the building’s entrances and exits, and moved staff to a canteen area away from the newsroom, according to Apple Daily staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions.
“We don’t really know what’s going on inside,” said one employee.
Copies of Next Digital’s Apple Daily newspapers at a newsstand in Hong Kong on Thursday.
The raid highlights how the dragnet is expanding beyond Lai and business executives at Apple Daily to editors and those in news operations.
Lai, a leading critic of the Chinese Communist Party, has been arrested under the security law and a litany of other charges, including his role in peaceful protests in support of the democracy movement. The 73-year-old, who has been detained since December, built his fortune in the garment industry before founding Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital.
A live stream of Thursday’s raid showed the paper’s chief editor, Ryan Law, escorted by police with his hands tied behind his back. Hong Kong’s Security Bureau forced Next Digital to halt trading, and froze about $2.3 million in assets of Apple Daily and two other related companies, according to Li, the police senior superintendent.
With pro-democracy demonstrations crushed and activists arrested, Apple Daily has emerged as one of the last avenues for the pro-democracy aspirations of Hong Kong people, who rush to buy copies of the newspaper on key anniversaries of the protest movement. Simply reading the paper in public or buying shares in Next Digital have become acts of resistance.
Before the Thursday sweep, Hong Kong police had arrested 109 people under the security law and prosecuted 62, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. They include 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists charged in February with “conspiracy to commit subversion.” Most have been denied bail.
Since Lai’s arrest, Apple Daily reporters and editors have braced for authorities to shut down the newspaper. Reporters have become accustomed to shredding documents and removing sensitive materials from the office before they leave for the day. Some have resigned in recent weeks.
Still, several reporters said the scope of the raid — which specifically targeted newsroom operations — was shocking, punitive and designed to send a message to the industry.
“Apple Daily has always been a sharp voice with a clear stance,” said one reporter at the paper. “The raid clearly shows that they don’t want such voices to exist.”
Theodora Yu contributed to this report.