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Police search newsroom as they step up investigations into media mogul Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily
HONG KONG—National security police in Hong Kong arrested the top editor of a popular pro-democracy newspaper and searched the company’s newsroom, in the most targeted action involving a media organization’s journalistic operations yet in a yearlong crackdown on dissent.
Apple Daily’s editor in chief, Ryan Law, was photographed on Thursday being led away in handcuffs by officers from his home in the Quarry Bay neighborhood. The raid was the latest in a series of moves against the newspaper group and its publisher, Jimmy Lai, a multimillionaire Beijing critic.
Scores of police, armed with a warrant they said covered the “power of searching and seizure of journalistic materials” under the national security law, also searched the Apple Daily newsroom. The newspaper reported that officers were looking through computers and searching desks.
Four other directors of the company were also arrested. Police said all five were detained under suspicion of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
Steve Li, a senior police superintendent, told reporters that the publication has conspired with others to request foreign countries, organizations and individuals to impose sanctions against Hong Kong and China. More than 30 Apple Daily articles were involved, and authorities froze the equivalent of $2.3 million from three related companies: Apple Daily Ltd., Apple Daily Printing Ltd. and AD Internet Ltd.
The articles played a crucial part in a conspiracy and provided ammunition for foreign countries or groups to impose sanctions, Mr. Li said.
Mr. Lai, the publisher, is currently serving a prison sentence for unauthorized assembly related to protests that erupted in the city in 2019. He is also awaiting trial on foreign-collusion charges under the security law.
Last month, Hong Kong police froze Mr. Lai’s assets, including his majority stake in Apple Daily. Pro-Beijing figures have called for authorities to shut down the paper, which has extensively covered and supported the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Press freedoms and other civil liberties in Hong Kong have steadily eroded under the national security law, freedom advocates and media observers say, as Beijing has made clear it won’t tolerate dissent and challenges to its power in the city. The arrests Thursday raised new questions about how journalists can report on pro-democracy groups and protests that can be deemed in violation of the national security law, which was imposed by China almost a year ago.
The broadly worded law prohibits acts and words considered to promote secession or considered seditious, and convicted offenders can face long jail terms. Most of the city’s opposition leaders have since been jailed or have fled the city.
More than 200 officers raided Apple Daily’s newsroom last August, though police said at the time they weren’t focused on news operations.
In November, authorities pressed charges against an investigative journalist with a public broadcaster, sending chills into the city’s freewheeling media industry.
Others arrested on Thursday, according to a report by Apple Daily, included Cheung Kim-hung and Royston Chow—respectively the chief executive and chief operating officer of Next Digital, which publishes the newspaper—as well as associate publisher Chan Pui-man and a news director named Cheung Chi-wai. Their homes were also searched.
Police sealed off the newsroom and employees were made to register at makeshift tables, a live stream by the paper showed. Journalists already in the office were ordered to leave, and at least one officer was pictured looking through materials on a staffer’s computer, Apple Daily said in a Facebook post. Mr. Li, the police official, said officers had to look into computers to find evidence.
Police officers took the personal details of employees who had just arrived, but barred them from entering their offices, directing them to leave or allowing them in the canteen only, Apple Daily reported. An Apple Daily reporter filmed the police search from outside the building, peering into the newsroom through thick windows.
Advocates in Hong Kong have warned that press freedom, which is constitutionally protected in Hong Kong, is being rapidly undermined under the assertive rule of Beijing.
Choy Yuk-ling, also known as Bao Choy, a former freelance producer with Radio Television Hong Kong, was convicted and fined in April for conducting a search for owners of car-license plates on a public database. The information was included in an investigative report. RTHK, a government-funded broadcaster with a longtime reputation for independent reporting, saw drastic changes this year as a career bureaucrat with no journalism experience was put at the helm. The broadcaster has since pulled episodes of programs and removed older shows from its YouTube channel.
A radio show host was arrested under a separate colonial-era sedition law earlier this year.