About 500 police were deployed to raid New Media’s headquarters on June 17. Photo: Facebook / Apple Daily

Beijing has fired back at a chorus of Western criticism of Thursday’s police raid of Apple Daily and the arrest of the news group’s staff members, saying foreign politicians and media should stop interfering in China’s and Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

“We oppose that some Western politicians and foreign media make carping comments on the Hong Kong police’s arrest of the five Apple Daily directors, smear the special administrative region (SAR) and interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong and China,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong said on Friday.

“Tricks played by foreign powers will not shake the SAR’s firm principle to enforce its law and China’s determination to safeguard its national security,” the spokesperson said, claiming that some foreign powers caused trouble by commenting the raid would have a “chilling effect” on Hong Kong’s press freedom.

A man walks under a banner that translates as “Thank you for the hard work, colleagues” at the Apple Daily offices after the arrest of five executives. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

The spokesperson said foreign powers, without naming any particular nation, should remove their “black hands” from Hong Kong. Those official comments came after the United States, European Union and the United Kingdom all issued statements raising concern about the latest raid on Apple Daily.

On Thursday, about 500 police were deployed to raid New Media’s headquarters as well as several residential flats. Secretary for Security John Lee also ordered a freeze on HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) worth of assets from Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited. 

A police officer wraps tape outside of the headquarters of the Apple Daily newspaper and its publisher Next Digital Ltd in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, June 17, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Vernon Yuen

“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,” UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted on Thursday. “Freedom of the press is one of the rights China promised to protect in the Joint Declaration and should be respected.”

The EU said on Thursday, “This morning’s raid on the offices of newspaper Apple Daily and the arrest of five of its senior management further demonstrates how the National Security Law is being used to stifle media freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.

“It is essential that all the existing rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are fully protected, including freedom of the press and of publication,” said Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “We strongly condemn the arrest of five senior executives from Apple Daily and its parent company and their parent company, Next Digital, and we call for their immediate release,”

“We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities’ selective use of the National Security Law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations,” Price said, adding that the charges “appear to be entirely politically motivated.”

National security charges

On Friday, Hong Kong police said they had charged two of the five executives with colluding with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security.

Police said the offense was set out in Article 29 of the National Security Law. Police also sent prosecution notices to Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited over the charge.

According to local media outlet RTHK, Apple Daily’s editor-in-chief Ryan Law and Next Digital chief executive Cheung Kim-hung have been charged and will be brought before the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court on Saturday.

Cheung Kim-hung, CEO of Next Digital, is escorted by police from the offices of the Apple Daily, June 17, 2021. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

The three other Apple Daily and Next Media staff were still being detained for further investigation, police said.

The arrests have caused a stir. Many Apple Daily supporters queued in front of newspaper stalls to buy the pro-democracy newspaper early on Friday. The newspaper said it had boosted its press run to 500,000 copies, up from 80,000 on Thursday.

A vendor in Mong Kok told RTHK that he usually sold 60 copies of Apple Daily each day, but 1,800 were snapped up by dawn. He ordered another 3,000 copies for sale for the rest of the day, the same report said.

Future operations

On Thursday, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, the Next Media Trade Union and six other media worker groups said in a joint statement that the police had “weaponized” the National Security Law against the media.

Alex Lam Wai-chung, a spokesperson for the Next Media Trade Union, said the desktop computers of 41 staff were taken away by police. Lam said colleagues continued to do their jobs with mobile phones and laptops.

Apple Daily printed 500,000 copies, far more than its normal run. People in Hong Kong asked others to buy the paper as a sign of support. Photo: AFP / Leung Man Hei / NurPhoto)

Lam said it was unclear whether the articles that allegedly violated the National Security Law were commentaries or news reports. Lam admitted that some staff were worried about their liability under the National Security Law’s vague and broad provisions.

In a statement, the Hong Kong News Executives’ Association said it, too, was highly concerned about the press freedom implications of the arrests. It urged the government to provide more transparency around the incident, which had caused widespread concern in the media industry.

Chau Sze-tat, a political commentator and popular YouTuber, said the government has avoided banning Apple Daily outright but instead has disrupted its operations by cutting its financial sources.

Chau said it was likely that all the newspaper’s assets would be frozen, including its factory site where the news publication is produced, which he speculated would likely eventually be forfeited.

Wong On-yin, another political commentator, said the newspaper would enjoy a short-term boost in sales but it would not be able to operate freely in the long run due to intensifying suppression from authorities.

Wong said it could be a good chance for Apple Daily to further digitalize its businesses and move its editorial department out of Hong Kong to a safer location. He predicted its fans would continue to support the Apple Daily if it left Hong Kong and became more globalized.

Read: Apple Daily arrests another blow to HK press freedom