The IPI global network today vehemently condemned the raid by Hong Kong police on the office of Apple Daily and the arrest of five of the newspaper’s executives under the National Security Law.

Around 500 Hong Kong national security police officers raided the publication on the morning of June 17. Apple Daily is owned by Jimmy Lai, who is currently in prison serving a 20-month term for organizing pro-democracy protests.

According to Apple Daily, which livestreamed the raid, police arrived at the headquarters of the newspaper in Tseung Kwan O around 7.30 a.m. and blocked all entrances. Journalists and staff were allowed to enter the office only after registering with the police but were not permitted to go to their desks.

Police arrested Apple Daily CEO Cheung Kim-hung, COO Royston Chow, Chief Editor Ryan Law, Associate Publisher Chan Pui-man and Platform Director of Apple Daily Digital Cheung Chi-wai on the charges of violating Article 29 of the National Security Law, which prohibits “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law was imposed on the territory last year by Beijing as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s effort to quell Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

“Today’s outrageous raid on Apple Daily further confirms what we already knew: China’s so-called ‘national security’ law was imposed as a tool to abolish fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, chief among them press freedom”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said.

“This raid and subsequent arrests are designed to create a chilling effect and intimidate journalists and media in Hong Kong from publishing content that is critical of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong’s leadership. Under the guise of protecting national security, authorities in Hong Kong are increasingly working to deny the public access to independent news in favour of information that toes the official line. IPI calls for the immediate release of all five executives, the unfreezing of Apple Daily’s assets, and the return of all confiscated equipment.”

In a statement issued after the raid, the government said that the national security unit executed a search warrant under Article 43(1) of the national security law, which allows law enforcement agencies to search premises, vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other relevant places and electronic devices that may contain evidence of an offence.

Later at a press briefing, the senior superintendent of the national security unit, Steve Li, told journalists that the raid was connected to more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily, both in print and online publications, calling for sanctions by foreign governments. Li also said that authorities had frozen assets worth HK$18 million (about 2 million euros) belonging to Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and the AD Internet Company. “We have very strong evidence that the questionable articles play a very crucial part for the conspiracy which provide the ammunition for the foreign countries and institutions or organisations to impose sanctions to Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China”, Li said.

Li also said that Apple Daily’s headquarters had been declared a crime scene, and that officers had confiscated electronic devices, such as mobile phones, computers and laptops.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee alleged at a press briefing that Apple Daily was using “journalism as a tool to endanger national security”. He cautioned the media and residents of Hong Kong that they will have to pay a price if they do not cut all ties with arrested Apple Daily executives.  “If you stand with these suspects, you will pay a hefty price. You should cut ties with the suspects, or you’ll regret it very much”, Lee said.

Meanwhile, the Global Times, a state-run newspaper of the Chinese government, published a statement of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong SAR that said it “supported the efforts made by the SAR government and Hong Kong police to safeguard national security”.

Spreading fear

Condemning the raid on the newspaper, Chris Yeung, chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), told IPI that the association was shocked by the raid, not only because of the scale, which is much bigger than the one in August 2020, but also because of the remarks made by the secretary of security, citing the publication of dozens of articles by the newspaper as evidence of a breach of the National Security Law.

“It is spreading fear and scare among journalists. The case raises grave concern about the use of NSL as a weapon to prosecute media executives and journalists for publishing reports and articles that are deemed as a threat to national security. It poses a serious threat to freedom of the press”, Yeung said. “The way the police enforced the law, and the court issued the warrant have seriously undermined the protection of journalist material by journalists, which is vital in upholding press freedom. We fear it will create a chilling effect in society. People will feel unsafe, uneasy talking to the media. Self-censorship will get worse if journalists are not sure whether they are able to protect their sources.”

“We urge the Government to give more details of the case as soon as possible to allay fears about freedom of the press and freedom of expression”, Yeung said.

Apple Daily and its publisher, Jimmy Lai, have been repeatedly targeted by Chinese and Hong Kong authorities for their pro-democracy stance. Last year in August, a month after the national security law was implemented in July, the police raided the office of the newspaper and arrested several executives including Jimmy Lai. In April this year, a court found him guilty of organizing and participating in anti-government protests in 2019 and sentenced him to 12 months in prison. On May 28, Lai was sentenced to another 14 months in prison on charges of participating and organizing an illegal demonstration two years ago. Last month, Lai’s assets worth around 60 million euros and his shares in Next Media group, which publishes Apple Daily, were frozen by authorities.