Hong Kong police on Thursday arrested five officials of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, including its editor, during the second search in less than a year of the newsroom of this daily in the sights of the authorities.
These arrests, in the name of the drastic national security law, are the final blow against the newspaper of the magnate Jimmy Lai, currently in detention for having participated in some pro-democracy protests in 2019.
More than 500 police officers took part this early Thursday morning in this operation in connection with articles published by the Apple Daily “calling for sanctions” against Hong Kong and the Chinese leaders, according to the police.
This is the first time that the contents of an article have given rise to arrests under the National Security Law imposed by Beijing last year.
Freedom of the press hangs “by a thread”
In a message to its readers, Apple Daily, said press freedom hangs “by a thread” in Hong Kong, but that all members of the newspaper “will stand firm and determined.”
The tabloid journalists’ union called the raid a “gratuitous violation of press freedom” which “testifies to the way in which the power of the police has grown under the law”.
The five leaders were arrested “for collusion with a foreign country or with external elements aimed at endangering national security”.
According to Chief Commissioner Steve Li, their duties make them “responsible for the content, style and rules of reporting.”
Police also announced that 18 million Hong Kong dollars (2 million euros) in assets held by Apple Daily have been frozen under the National Security Act. This is the first seizure of the assets of a newspaper company in the region.
Hong Kong Security Minister John Lee declined to say which articles violate security law or whether people who shared them on the internet bought Apple Daily or its shares are liable to prosecution.
“This is not aimed at freedom of the press,” he said. “We are targeting a conspiracy that threatens national security and journalists who through their work engage in acts threatening national security.” The newspaper posted videos live on Facebook showing the search of the newsroom.
Among those arrested, editor-in-chief Ryan Law and CEO Cheung Kim-hung were ushered into the building with their hands tied behind their backs.
After the raid, journalists returned to the newsroom, sacked. According to them, the police took away 38 computers, as well as hard drives and notebooks.
A photographer for the newspaper said it was “to create a climate of terror for all employees of the Apple Daily”. “But if I am arrested for wanting to testify to the news, I will have no regrets,” he said.
The Hong Kong Stock Exchange announced in the wake of the suspension of trading in shares of Next Digital, the media group of Jimmy Lai.
In one year, the political climate has deteriorated considerably in the former British colony with the relentless repression of the pro-democracy movement of 2019.
The privileged instrument of this repression of all dissent is the National Security Act, which provides for life sentences. Jimmy Lai, owner of the newspaper he created in 1995, has been accused of collusion after a first raid in August.
The 73-year-old is behind bars following several convictions for participating in pro-democracy protests in 2019.
The Apple Daily had given unwavering support to this movement and Beijing has never hidden its desire to bring this newspaper into line, or at least to stifle its voice.
The official media regularly accuse Jimmy Lai of being a “traitor” and the instigator of the protest movement.
The police justified by the law on national security the freezing in May of its bank accounts and its majority stake in the capital of Next Digital.
Until Thursday, the authorities had never touched the assets of the newspaper and it is impossible to know if Apple Daily will remain able to pay its employees.
“We will do our best to publish newspapers tomorrow,” Lam Man-chung, an editor who was not among those arrested, told AFP.
More than 100 people have already been charged under the National Security Act.
Many Western powers believe that it has sounded the death knell for the principle “One country, two systems” which had presided over the handover of the former British colony by London in 1997. It was to guarantee the territory a very large autonomy until ‘ in 2047.
The editor of the Apple Daily had admitted in May to AFP that the newspaper had been “in crisis” since the imprisonment of his boss, assuring nevertheless that the journalists were determined to continue the publication. During a recent public discussion, employees asked him what to do if he was arrested. “Broadcast it live,” he replied.
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