Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam says journalists should “be in a position” to decide for themselves if they are breaking the law in the course of their work as press freedom fears intensified in the city amid the impending closure of its only pro-democracy print newspaper, Apple Daily.

In response to a question in which she was asked to define “normal journalistic work,” Lam said “journalists should be in a position to judge whether one is breaching the law.”

“I can only say what is breaching the law based on the advice from my enforcement authorities as well as the Department of Justice what activities or acts will be suspected of breaching the laws of Hong Kong, including the national security law, and the law is very well defined,” added Lam in a press conference on Tuesday.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on June 22, 2021. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The chief executive’s comments came after Secretary for Security John Lee last week accused the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily of using journalism as a tool to endanger national security, while adding that the accusations against Apple Daily and its senior executives had to be differentiated from “normal journalistic work.”

The tabloid and two of its senior executives were charged under the national security law for allegedly conspiring with the founder of Next Digital and Apple Daily Jimmy Lai in calling on foreign countries or external forces to impose sanctions or blockages, or engage in hostile activities against Hong Kong and China.

The newspaper’s headquarters in Tseung Kwan O were raided as part of a police operation involving around 500 officers. The force seized more than 40 computers and 16 servers, including journalistic material.

Apple Daily headquarters. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

While Lam said that she would not comment on the Apple Daily case because legal proceedings had begun, said did says that the police action was “completely not related to normal journalistic work.”

“What we are dealing with is not a problem of a media organisation, nor a problem of media reports, but a suspicion of endangerment of national security,” said Lam.

“So you can’t say because the suspected organisation is a media organisation, and the suspects were the people in charge of the media organisation, that our work is oppressing press freedom. It is completely irrelevant.”

The chief executive also said that bosses of media organisations should not use their organisations as a “protective shield” to disobey the law: “It’s not a problem to criticise the Hong Kong government, but if there is an intent to organise activities to incite the subversion of the government then that is, of course, a different thing.”

‘Double standards’

Lam also hit out at the US government over its criticism of the Apple Daily arrests, and told foreign governments to stop trying to accuse her administration of “using the national security law as a tool to suppress the media or to stifle the freedom of expression.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam meeting the press on June 22, 2021. Photo: GovHK, via video screenshot.

“…don’t try to underplay the significance of breaching the national security law, and don’t try to beautify these acts of endangering national security, which the foreign governments have taken so so much to their heart, whenever they talk about things they are doing, they will put it under the banner of safeguarding national security.

“So what is the basis of applying that sort of double standards to the situation of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region?” said Lam. “All those accusations made by the US, I’m afraid, are wrong.”

The Security Bureau froze HK$18 million worth of assets of the three companies facing charges, Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited and AD Internet Limited. The self-proclaimed pro-democracy newspaper said it could stop publishing on Saturday, if the government continues to keep its assets frozen.

Lam said that if the freezing of assets leads to any labour disputes, Hong Kong’s law would protect labour rights, and that the administration would not discriminate and will provide appropriate legal assistance.

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.