For the first time on Thursday, Hong Kong police deployed a broad national security law against a pro-democracy newspaper, detaining five editors and executives on suspicions of cooperation with foreign forces.
In reaction to a crackdown on civil freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, police said they had compelling evidence that more than 30 articles published by Apple Daily played a "crucial role" in a conspiracy with other countries to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong.
Apple Daily has frequently chastised the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for tightening control over the city and breaking promises made by Beijing when the region was handed over from the United Kingdom in 1997 that it would keep its freedoms.
Jimmy Lai, the creator of Apple Daily, is presently serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in illegal gatherings in Hong Kong in 2019, during a period when the city witnessed enormous anti-government protests advocating for universal suffrage and democratic freedoms.
According to Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent at Hong Kong's National Security Department, police also froze HK$18 million in assets belonging to three firms affiliated to Apple Daily.
The government stated a warrant was acquired to hunt for evidence of a potential violation of the national security law, and that more than 200 police officers were involved in the search of Apple Daily's premises.
According to Apple Daily, the South China Morning Post, and other local media, those arrested included Apple Daily's main editor Ryan Law, Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung, the publisher's chief operational officer, and two other editors.
Police will investigate both Apple Daily employees and others, Hong Kong Security Minister John Lee said during a press conference, to see if they were involved in initiating or supporting the crimes.
The police action against the Apple Daily editors and executives, he claims, has nothing to do with "regular journalistic activity."
“The activity was aimed at using journalistic work as a tool to jeopardize national security,” he stated, cautioning people to stay away from individuals under investigation since they are not “normal journalists.”
He stated that anyone working as a journalist in Hong Kong must follow all applicable regulations, including the national security legislation.
“I'd like to urge here that you should not collude with these perpetrators, that you should not be in cahoots with them,” Lee warned.
“Keep your distance from them; otherwise, all you'll have are regrets.”
Secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign cooperation are all prohibited under Beijing's national security regulations. Since its implementation in June of last year, the law has resulted in the imprisonment of over 100 pro-democracy activists, effectively silencing opposition voices in the city, with many others fleeing abroad.
The US has sanctioned Hong Kong and Chinese officials, including city leader Carrie Lam, in response to the law, accusing them of undermining Hong Kong's autonomy.
According to a notice on the Hong Kong stock exchange, trading in Next Digital's shares was halted on Thursday morning. The reason for the halt was not stated.