A day after Hong Kong police arrested five senior editors and executives of the Apple Daily, residents lined up to buy the newspaper to show their support for the embattled press freedom. The Apple Daily’s print run more than quintupled to 500,000 copies on Friday (June 18).
The police raid on the paper’s offices, and the freezing of $2.3 million worth of its assets, marked the first time authorities have used sweeping national security laws against the media. The Associated Press reported that it was the latest sign of the expanding crackdown on civil liberties in the semi-autonomous city. Hong Kong has long enjoyed freedoms that don’t exist elsewhere in China.
Police said the newspaper has published more than 30 articles calling for international sanctions against China and Hong Kong since 2019, and arrested five executives from Apple Daily and Next Media on suspicion of “conspiracy to collaborate with foreign countries or forces outside the country to endanger national security” in violation of Article 29 of Hong Kong’s national security law.
On Friday, the Ministry of National Security charged two men with conspiring with a foreign country to endanger national security, according to a government statement. The two men will appear in court on Saturday.
The statement did not name the two men, but the Associated Press reported that the South China Morning Post quoted a source who declined to be named as saying they were Luo Weiguang, editor-in-chief of Apple Daily, and Zhang Jianhong, chief executive of Next Digital, the publisher of Apple Daily. The other three were detained for investigation.
As anti-government protests subsided and most of Hong Kong’s prominent pro-democracy activists were arrested and jailed, others fled abroad and people snapped up copies of Apple Daily at newsstands and convenience stores.
Hong Kong resident Lisa Cheung told the Associated Press, “There’s already a lot of injustice in Hong Kong. I think there are a lot of things we can’t do anymore.”
She said: “Buying a copy is all we can do. When the law no longer protects Hong Kong people, we can only do what we can do.”
The front page of Friday’s Apple Daily carried photos of five editors and executives leaving in handcuffs. Police also confiscated 44 hard drives worth of news materials. One Media CEO Jianhong Zhang, who was arrested, was quoted as saying, “Everyone needs to hold on.”
Another resident, William Chan, told the Associated Press that he bought a copy of the newspaper to show his support.
“This is a baseless arrest that suppresses the freedom of the press,” he said.
The Beijing authorities pushed through Hong Kong’s national security law after months-long mass protests in 2019. This so-called Hong Kong version of the national security law prohibits activities such as subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries, and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for serious crimes.
On Thursday, Secretary for Security Lee Ka-chiu warned other journalists to keep their distance from those under investigation by the Apple Daily. He said those arrested “used the report as a tool to endanger national security” and that anyone who “colluded” with them would pay a heavy price.
The Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong expressed support for the police action in a statement Thursday, noting that while Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, those rights cannot undermine “the bottom line of national security.”
“Freedom of the press is not a ‘shield’ for illegal activities,” the Liaison Office statement said.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. strongly condemned the arrests and called for the immediate release of the five men arrested. He also called on Hong Kong authorities to stop targeting independent and free media.
“We are deeply concerned that the Hong Kong authorities are selectively using national security laws to arbitrarily target independent media outlets,” Price said, adding that the alleged foreign collusion charges appear to be politically motivated.
He said, “It is well known that the exchange of views between the press and foreigners should never constitute a crime.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that freedom of the press is one of the rights China promised to protect for 50 years when Britain handed over Hong Kong in 1997.
Raab said, “Today’s raid and arrest of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily shows that Beijing is using the National Security Law to target dissenting voices rather than address public safety issues.”
EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said the arrest “further demonstrates how the National Security Law is being used to stifle media freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.”
Massrali said media freedom and pluralism are fundamental to Hong Kong’s success under the “one country, two systems” framework.
In a statement, Reporters Without Borders urged Hong Kong authorities to “drop all charges and immediately release all defendants.”
Cédric Alviani, head of the East Asia department based in Taipei, said, “The arrests and raids on the Apple Daily headquarters show that the government will do everything in its power to silence Hong Kong’s last independent media outlet and symbol of press freedom.”
Reporters Without Borders says Hong Kong, once a bastion of press freedom, has fallen from 18th place in 2002 to 80th place in the 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index. Mainland China is at the bottom of the list at 177th out of 180 countries and territories covered by the 2021 RSF Index.
Apple Daily has pledged to its readers to continue its coverage and showed its commitment by inviting members of the media to its printing presses on Thursday evening to see the Friday edition in print.
Apple Daily founder Chi-Ying Lai is the recipient of the 2020 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Award. Lai has been in detention since December 2020 and was sentenced to 20 months in prison for participating in “unauthorized” pro-democracy protests. He also faces six other charges, including two under national security laws, and thus could face life in prison.
The Apple Daily has an average daily circulation of approximately 86,000 copies.