The latest arrest of Apple Daily editors and executives and the seizure of materials at the newspaper’s headquarters will have a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s media and undermine the city’s press freedom, according to eight media workers groups.
The large-scale operation by Hong Kong police at Next Media’s office on Thursday was more invasive than the one last August as officers searched desks and phones used by journalists, said Chris Yeung, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA).
“It is difficult to describe in words how horrible the situation of Hong Kong’s press freedom is,” Yeung said. “In the past, courts have checks and balances on whether law enforcement departments should be granted a warrant to search a news organization. Such restraint no longer exists now.”
Yeung said people would be less willing to talk to journalists if they felt that they would not be able to stay anonymous. He also said Apple Daily was accused of publishing dozens of articles that called for sanctioning Hong Kong and China but these articles might not necessarily represent the view of the media.
HKJA urged the government to elaborate on how Apple Daily’s articles had endangered national security. HKJA, the Next Media Trade Union and six other media worker groups said in a joint statement that they were shocked by the police operation and that it had weaponized the national security law against the media.
On August 10 last year, about 200 police officers entered the headquarters of Next Media, which publishes the Apple Daily, in Tseung Kwan O and searched the building.
Officers had tried to examine news documents in the editorial department but they were stopped by Next Media’s staff as the warrant stated clearly that news materials in the building were excluded from the coverage of the search.
At 7 am on Thursday, around 500 police were deployed to raid Next Media’s headquarters as well as several residential flats. They arrested the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law, deputy editor Chan Pui-man and chief executive editor Cheung Chi-wai, as well as Next Digital’s chief executive Cheung Kim-hung and chief operating officer Chow Tat-kuen.
“On the newspaper and on the Internet version, we found so far about over 30 pieces of articles, which requested foreign countries or institutions impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China, in English and Chinese as well,” police Senior Superintendent Steve Li said after the operation.
Li did not disclose any details about the articles but suggested the public could face trouble with the law if they shared them on social media.
Secretary for Security John Lee ordered to freeze HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) worth of assets from Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited. Lee told the public and the media to cut all ties with several Apple Daily executives arrested under the National Security Law, warning people they “would regret it” if they didn’t.
Lee said the issue was unrelated to press freedom but was a criminal act in which some people had violated the National Security Law.
The Chinese government’s Liaison Office said in a statement that it supported the police raid of the Apple Daily’s headquarters. “Freedom of the press is not a ‘shield’ for illegal activities,” the statement said.
The statement also said Hong Kong people’s freedoms of speech, press and publication were protected by the Basic Law but no rights and freedoms are absolute. It said press freedom should not be used to hide illegal acts while no one could break the National Security Law.
“No matter what kind of professional status and background they have, no matter what kind of support they have behind them, anyone who violates the Hong Kong National Security Law and relevant laws will be severely punished by the law,” it said.
Sharron Fast, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, told RTHK that Lee’s comments about the Apple Daily raid were both ominous and false.
“It’s ominous because it’s promoting this narrative of what is a proper journalist in this particular view of the government,” Fast said. “It’s incorrect because it’s precisely the role of a journalist in a free society to report on political views or developments even if they are unwelcome.”
Fast said she believed authorities would continue to exert pressure on Apple Daily and further tighten regulations on the media industry.
Apple Daily published an open letter to its readers, saying that the police took away 38 computers used by its editorial staff during a five-hour operation, which it said put Hong Kong’s press freedom at risk.
The paper noted it said in its first editorial on June 20, 1995 that “the penetration power of the press is the biggest guarantee of Hong Kong’s freedom and prosperity.” It said that guarantee had now vanished but the newspaper’s staff would stay in their positions.
The paper said also it had been left “speechless” by Lee’s warning for people to cut ties with the paper. It said it has truthfully reported how other countries and various organizations have responded to the situation in Hong Kong, and these responses were facts available for the world to see.
“This is a blatant violation of freedom of press in the name of national security. We would like to reiterate: journalism is not a crime,” the Next Media Trade Union said in a statement, adding that editorial staff at the newspaper had always been professional and abided by journalistic principles.
It said national security police have treated journalists as criminals and journalism as crime, merely by claiming that past news articles had breached the law.
On June 10, the British government published a six-monthly report on Hong Kong for the period between July and December 2020. Citing HKJA comments, it said the city’s press freedom was at a record low.
The British government raised particular concerns about the arrest of Bao Choy Yuk-ling, a RTHK producer who investigated police misconduct during a 2019 protest incident at Yuen Long, for allegedly making a false statement about why she obtained vehicle licensing information from a publicly accessible database.
In January this year, the Hong Kong government said it would implement a real-name registration program for mobile SIM cards to strengthen law enforcement against criminal activities.
In March, it announced changes to the Companies Ordinance, putting restrictions on public access to certain identifying details of company directors such as ID number and address. HKJA has said that these changes would undermine press freedom as they would impede investigative reporting and verification of data by journalists.
On May 11, a female reporter of the Epoch Times, a newspaper associated with the persecuted Chinese religious group Falun Gong, was injured after she was attacked with a baseball by an unknown man near her home.
The newspaper’s printing plant was also broken into and destroyed by mobs in March. In a statement, HKJA strongly condemned the incident and violence against the media. Police have not yet found any suspects in the case.
Read: Lai’s arrest first HK security law attack on the press