China has hailed the arrest of five executives from Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily as “an act of justice,” after police detained them on Thursday for allegedly breaching the national security law.

Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city said it “resolutely supported” the arrest of the five directors and the freezing of HK$18 million in assets of three companies linked to the publication.

Pro-Beijing protesters outside the Apple Daily headquarters celebrating the arrests of five members of management on June 17, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The five are Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung and Chief Operating Officer Royston Chow, Apple Daily’s Editor-in-Chief Ryan Law, Associate Publisher Chan Pui-man and Cheung Chi-wai, who manages the newspaper’s online news platform. 

They are alleged to have colluded with foreign forces in breach of the Beijing-imposed law by publishing a series of articles. Hong Kong’s security minister John Lee labelled them as “criminals” and accused them of using journalism as a tool to endanger national security.

“We resolutely support the act of justice by the HKSAR and police strict enforcement of the law,” the liaison office said in a statement. “Hong Kong is a rule of law society, everyone is equal before the law… press freedom is not a ‘shield’ for illegal behaviour.”

Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong echoed the comments. Holden Chow of the DAB party, who is also a lawyer, said the arrests were conducted “strictly in accordance with the law.”

“One cannot abuse freedom of press to endanger national security,” he wrote on Twitter.

Around 500 officers were deployed as the force raided the newspaper’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O with a warrant that gave them power to seize journalistic material. According to Apple Daily, 38 computers containing news material were taken away during a five-hour search.

The alleged conspiracy was linked to more than 30 Chinese and English articles published since 2019, in some cases before the enactment of the security legislation last June 30 that also outlaws secession, subversion and terrorist acts.

Police said the articles amounted to calls for sanctions against China and Hong Kong, but they refused to give details of the nature of the articles, such as whether they were opinion pieces or news reports.

Police search the Apple Daily office in Tseung Kwan O on June 17, 2021.

Steven Butler of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) criticised the arrests as an attempt to eliminate “an annoying critic.” The newspaper and its detained founder Jimmy Lai have been unapologetically critical of the local and central governments.

“The arrests of five executives at the pro-democracy Apple Daily today under Hong Kong’s Orwellian National Security Law destroy any remaining fiction that Hong Kong supports freedom of the press,” said Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the CPJ.

“China, which controls Hong Kong, may be able to eliminate the paper, which it sees as an annoying critic, but only at a steep price to be paid by the people of Hong Kong, who had enjoyed decades of free access to information,” he added.

Jimmy Lai. File photo: Studio Incendo.

Lai is currently serving 20 months for his role in three unauthorised protests in 2019. He is also set to face a national security trial in the city’s High Court, where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

Amnesty International slammed the arrests as a “brazen attack” on freedom of the press. The organisation said using Apple Daily content as grounds for arresting its top executives was “deeply disturbing” and could have profound implications on all news outlets in Hong Kong.

Chan Pui-man.

Amnesty’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said according to international human rights standards, national security could only be cited to restrict rights and freedoms when there were “imminent and clear threats of violence or the use of force.”

“It is farcical for the authorities to suggest that the critical media articles that apparently prompted today’s raid have met this threshold, while pretending to use international law as their justification. Once again, ‘national security’ is being used as a catch-all to silence critics in Hong Kong,” she said.

In a letter to its readers, Apple Daily said it would “press on” despite what it called an unprecedented attack on the paper. The arrests and raid left staff “speechless” and feeling powerless, the publication said, but the employees were standing firm.

“History will pass judgement on today’s accusations against Apple Daily. In an era where the regime can draw arbitrary red lines, the staff of Apple Daily will remain in their positions and report the truth for Hong Kong people in a legal, reasonable and fair manner,” the letter read.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.