Police officers arrive at the office of Next Media, publisher of Apple Daily, in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday. Hong Kong's national security police arrested five directors of the Apple Daily newspaper on suspicion of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces. Photo by Apple Daily/EPA-EFE
June 17 (UPI) -- Police in Hong Kong raided the headquarters of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on Thursday, arresting five directors suspected of violating a controversial national security law for publishing articles urging foreign nations to impose sanctions on China.
Police said in a statement that officers arrested four men and a woman aged 47 to 63 on suspicion of "collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security."
The arrests follow the Hong Kong government announcing the police's National Security Department raided the Tseung Kwan O offices of Apple Daily with a warrant issued under Article 43(1) of the national security law that covers the power of search and seizure of journalistic materials.
Authorities said they also searched the residences of those arrested.
Apple Daily identified those detained as CEO Cheung Kim-hung, COO Royston Chow, Chief Editor Ryan Law, Associate Publisher Chan Pui-man and Platform Director of Apple Daily Digital Cheung Chi-wai.
The newspaper said hundreds of police raided its offices at about 7:30 a.m.
Police said the arrests and searches were conducted in connection to more than 30 articles printed by Apple Daily in English and Chinese calling for foreign countries to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.
"We have a very strong evidence that the questionable articles play a crucial part for the conspiracy scheme, which provides the ammunition for the foreign countries and the institutions and organizations to impose sanctions to Hong Kong and the People's Republic of China," Hong Kong National Security Unit Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah told reporters during a press conference.
Li said the articles were meant to incite foreign countries to impose sanctions on China, calling them "very straightforward."
Police also froze $2.3 million in assets of the newspaper and its affiliated companies, he added.
At a separate press conference, Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu accused the newspaper of using journalistic tools to collude with foreign countries to convince them to take "hostile actions" against Hong Kong and Beijing, South China Morning Post reported.
"We need to differentiate what the suspects have done from normal journalistic work," he said. "All journalists in the city should keep a distance [from this approach]."
When repeatedly asked by reporters if the articles in question were reports, editorials or commentaries, Lee refused to answer, stating that they are not simply investigating the content of the articles but "how the overall criminal conspiracy is conducted."
"I cannot further discuss evidence as there are still ongoing investigations and possible court trials," he said. "For all journalists, they only have to consider whether they have the intention or plan to harm national security, and act according to the law when they work."
The pro-democracy newspaper was previously raided in August following the imposition of the national security law, which criminalizes with steep penalties acts of secession, sedition, subversion, terrorism and working with foreign powers to undermine China's national security.
Police arrested several employees during the raid, including the newspaper's outspoken founder Jimmy Lai, who was sentenced to 14 months in jail for his role in pro-democracy protests that rocked the city in 2019. He also faces separate charges of violating the national security law by using Apple Daily to solicit sanctions against Beijing from foreign countries.
The arrests on Thursday are expected to attract condemnation from Western nations and press freedom organizations, despite Li stating they are not targeting the media.
Steven Butler, Committee to Protect Journalists' Asia program coordinator, said the arrests Thursday destroy "any remaining fiction that Hong Kong supports freedom of the press."
"China, which controls Hong Kong, many 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 said in a statement.
The United States has repeatedly sanctioned Chinese officials in connection to the draconian national security law imposed upon the former British colony in June of last year, one that critics say deteriorates the freedoms Hong Kong was granted when it returned to Beijing's sovereignty in 1997.
Further U.S. sanctions were imposed in connection to the National People's Congress in March unilaterally approving legislation to overhaul the island's electoral system to ensure only so-called patriots can hold office.
Britain has also imposed measures to punish China over the law, going so far as to create a path to citizenship from nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents.