The arrest of media tycoon Jimmy Lai represents the first use of Beijing’s new security law against Hong Kong’s media, ringing alarm bells the legislation will impact the semi-autonomous city’s long history of press freedom.
The Hong Kong Police Force was slammed by media workers’ groups for searching the Apple Daily’s newsroom and its journalists’ materials without a relevant warrant during an operation to arrest Lai on Monday morning. He was charged under the law’s provision barring foreign collusion.
About 200 police officers entered the Next Media headquarters in Tseung Kwan O at 10 am and started searching the building, including the newsroom, before showing a court warrant to Ryan Law Wai-kwong, Next Media’s editor-in-chief, or the company’s lawyers, the Next Media Trade Union said in a statement.
Next Media’s staff had asked police officers to stop examining news documents in the editorial department but the officers ignored them, according to the statement. Law later said the police force was granted a warrant but it stated clearly that news materials in the building were excluded from the coverage of the search.
The Next Media Trade Union strongly condemned the police for touching and reading the news materials in the newsroom of the Apple Daily. It said the move had seriously undermined Hong Kong’s press freedom and violated media workers’ right to keep their information sources confidential.
The union also criticized the police for demanding that reporters in the building stop filming while they expanded their blockade lines to disturb journalists’ work. It said the police raid was intended to disturb and intimidate the local media.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah, from the new National Security Department, said in a briefing that the editorial department search was only a “preliminary review” and not intended to target news materials.
“We’ve showed a warrant to the person-in-charge. As the search target is a media institution, we are afraid that some news materials would be involved. Our superintendents and I have made a ‘preliminary review’ and decided which unit or department could not be searched,” Li said. “We will not search the areas that are likely to have news materials.”
Li also said the police had to enter the editorial department on the second floor of the building as the arrested people’s offices were on the same floor. He said the police had removed 25 boxes of evidence from the building during the operation. Li did not answer any questions from the media.
A video released by Apple Daily shows that when Lai was brought back to his office in the editorial department, some staff who were filming outside were ordered by the police to turn off their cameras.
Law and Next Media’s deputy publisher Chan Pui-man insisted on staying there to monitor the police operation. However, they were ordered by the police to step back. Law was seen being pushed by several police officers. An officer shouted at Law and Chan and warned that they would be arrested for obstructing police officers.
Police then expanded their blockade lines and pushed all the Apple Daily staff back to the other end of the newsroom. Some officers were seen searching through documents in the financial news department and touching items on journalists’ desks.
Outside the building, a group of journalists, including ones from the Associated Press and AFP, were denied access to the scene when the police raided the Next Media headquarters. Journalists for the government-owned RTHK and local web-based media like Stand News were also pushed back.
A female officer from the police media relations unit said only media organizations that had not obstructed or harmed members of the force in the past were allowed to cover a briefing that Senior Superintendent Li was giving at the premises.
“We are picking some local media, reputation … I mean that are bigger in scale. And that they had not obstructed or posed a safety threat to officers in police operations in the past,” she said.
Eight media groups, including the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association, expressed strong opposition to the police screening of the press and the search at the Apple Daily’s news department, saying that the actions seriously trampled on press freedom.
A media academic and veteran pro-democracy leader condemned the “outrageous” police raid on the Apple Daily, saying it was aimed at intimidating the media in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club strongly condemned the arrest of Lai and the eight others, as well as the police raid on the newspaper’s headquarters. It also criticized the police for blocking several local and international media outlets from a press briefing about the events at the Apple Daily headquarters.
Meanwhile, police have also raided the Four Seasons Restaurant in Central, which is run by one of Lai’s arrested sons, Ian. Police said they had arrested nine men, aged between 23 and 72, during the operations, for allegedly violating the National Security Law and being involved in fraud.
Police have been accused of using social distancing rules to suppress protests and prevent journalists from reporting news near protest sites.
Last Saturday, about 40 reporters were intercepted by the police when they were covering a gathering to mourn the death of a young protester in Tseung Kwan O. They were asked to prove their identities and 16 of them, mostly student reporters, were fined HK$2,000 (US$258) each for breaking the anti-epidemic rules.
Police officers also interfered with reporters by frequently checking their ID cards. A reporter said four different police officers had checked her ID card in one night. The police force said in a statement that it respected Hong Kong’s press freedom.