Hong Kong police arrested the chief editor and four executives of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on Thursday, raiding its newsroom for a second time in the latest hammer blow to the outspoken tabloid.
The paper and its now jailed owner Jimmy Lai have long been a thorn in Beijing’s side with unapologetic support for the financial hub’s pro-democracy movement and caustic criticism of China’s authoritarian leaders.
Police said five executives were arrested “for collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security”.
A police source confirmed to AFP that all five were executives from Next Digital, Apple Daily’s parent company.
Apple Daily said chief editor Ryan Law was among those arrested.
The paper broadcast live footage on its Facebook account of the police raid. Officers could be seen cordoning off the complex and walking through the building.
“They arrived around 7am this morning, our building is besieged,” an unnamed reporter said in a live commentary with the broadcast. “Now we can see them moving boxes of materials onto their truck.”
“Police are restricting us from using quite a lot of our equipment. But we can still keep this live camera on and our website will keep updating,” the voice added.
Hong Kong’s stock exchange said trading in Next Digital’s shares had been halted.
The security law introduced last June is the speartip of a sweeping crackdown on Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong since 2019’s huge democracy protests.
It has criminalised much dissent, given China jurisdiction over some cases, allowed mainland security agents to operate openly in Hong Kong and awarded authorities a suite of powerful new investigation powers.
Those convicted of a national security crime face up to life in prison and the majority are denied bail after arrest.
– Troubled times –
Thursday’s raid was the second on Apple Daily in less than a year.
Apple Daily’s billionaire owner Lai, 73, was charged with collusion after hundreds of officers searched the paper’s newsroom last August.
He is currently serving multiple jail sentences for attending various pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong two years ago.
Authorities have given few details of what acts count as “collusion”.
However, Lai’s national security charge is centred around him allegedly lobbying for international sanctions against China and Hong Kong officials.
Apple Daily has staunchly backed Hong Kong’s pro-democracy cause, including the huge and often violent protests that swept the international financial hub in 2019.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to see the paper’s voice tamed, with state media routinely describing Lai as a “traitor” and a “black hand” and senior communist party officials already declaring him guilty.
Last month, police used the national security law to freeze Lai’s bank accounts and his majority shares in Next Digital.
It was the first time Hong Kong authorities have used the law to seize shares of a listed company’s majority shareholder.
More than 100 people have been arrested under the law, many of them the city’s best-known democracy activists. Others have fled overseas.
China says the law was needed to return stability to the financial hub.
Critics, including many Western nations, say it has been the final nail in the coffin for Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” promise that Hong Kong could maintain certain liberties and autonomy after its 1997 handover.
A shadow of fear has hung over the newsroom since Lai’s arrest with reporters and executives fearing further police action was in the works.
In an interview with AFP last month, chief editor Law struck a defiant tone.
He admitted that the paper was in “crisis” since the jailing of its owner but said his reporters were determined to press on with publishing.
At a recent townhall meeting, staff asked Law what they should do if the police came back to arrest him.
He had a simple reply: “Broadcast it live.”