Hong Kong police arrest 5 editors, executives at pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper

Five editors and executives at pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper were arrested Thursday under Hong Kong's national security law, its stock was halted and police were searching its offices in moves raising concerns about the media's future in the city.

Reports say more than 200 police officers involved in search of newspaper's offices

Copies of Apple Daily newspaper are displayed for sale at a newsstand in Hong Kong on May 17, 2021. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

Hong Kong police used a sweeping national security law against a pro-democracy newspaper for the first time Thursday, arresting five editors and executives on charges of collusion with foreign powers.

Police said they had strong evidence that more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily played a "crucial part" in a conspiracy with foreign countries to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong, in response to a crackdown on civil liberties in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Apple Daily has often criticized the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for tightening control over the city and walking back on promises by Beijing that the territory could retain its freedoms when it was handed over from Britain in 1997.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorized assemblies in 2019, during a period when Hong Kong saw massive anti-government protest calling for universal suffrage and democratic freedoms.

Police also froze the equivalent of $2.8 million Cdn worth of assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily, said Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent at Hong Kong's National Security Department.

U.K. criticism

The British government accused China of using the national security law to target dissent rather than deal with public security.

"Today's raids and arrests at Apple Daily in Hong Kong demonstrate Beijing is using the National Security Law to target dissenting voices, not tackle public security," British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said.

"Freedom of the press is one of the rights China promised to protect in the Joint Declaration and should be respected," he said.

More than 200 police officers were involved in the search of Apple Daily's offices, and the government said a warrant was obtained to look for evidence of a suspected violation of the national security law.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorized assemblies in 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Those arrested included Apple Daily's chief editor Ryan Law, Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung, the publisher's chief operating officer and two other editors, according to Apple Daily, the South China Morning Post and other local media.

Hong Kong Security Minister John Lee told a news conference that police will investigate both people in the Apple Daily companies and others to establish if they have assisted in instigating or funding the offences.

He said that the police action against the Apple Daily editors and executives is not related to "normal journalistic work."

"The action targeted the use of journalistic work as a tool to endanger national security," he said, warning people to keep a distance from those who are under investigation as they are not "normal journalists."

He said that anyone who engages in journalistic work in Hong Kong must abide by the laws, including the national security legislation.

"I'd like to say here that you should not collude with these perpetrators, do not be in cahoots with them, otherwise you will pay a hefty price," Lee said. "Distance yourself from them, otherwise all you are left with are regrets."

More than 100 activists arrested under law

The national security legislation imposed by Beijing outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion. The law has been used to arrest over 100 pro-democracy activists since it was first implemented in June last year, and had virtually silenced opposition voices in the city, with many others fleeing abroad.

In response, the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including the city leader Carrie Lam, accusing them of undermining Hong Kong's autonomy.

Trading in the shares of Next Digital was halted Thursday morning, according to a notice on the Hong Kong stock exchange. No reason was given for the halt.

with files from Reuters