The latest arrest of the editor-in-chief of the Apple Daily, along with four other senior executives of Next Digital - the parent company of the newspaper - and the freezing of assets worth millions would have a lasting effect, legal experts said, after Hong Kong police searched again the newspaper's office on Thursday, adding that the worst possible scenario for the paper, which has been in disguise as "fighter for freedom of speech," could be a complete shutdown.
The department for safeguarding the national security of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) arrested the editor-in-chief and four directors on suspicion of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and froze HK$18 million ($2.3 million) in assets during a Thursday morning raid.
This was the second time Apply Daily, founded and owned by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, who bears multiple charges including conspiracy to collude with foreign countries or forces to endanger national security, has been raided since the national security law for Hong Kong came into force on June 30, 2020.
Police arrested Apple Daily editor-in-chief Ryan Law Wai-Kwong, Cheung Kim-hung, CEO of Next Digital, the company's chief operating officer Chow Tat-kuen and deputy chief editor Chan Puiman, as well as chief executive editor Cheung Chi-wai, according to media reports.
Senior Superintendent of Hong Kong police Steve Li Kwai-wah told reporters after the arrests that strong evidence showed that dozens of questionable articles published by Apple Daily since 2019 played a very crucial part in the conspiracy which provided the ammunition for foreign countries and institutions or organizations to impose sanctions on China and the Hong Kong region.
Police raided the offices of Apple Daily following a search warrant, in accordance with Article 43 of the national security law for Hong Kong, which stipulates that when handling cases concerning offence endangering national security, the department for safeguarding national security of the Hong Kong police may take measures such as a search of premises, vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other relevant places and electronic devices that may contain evidence of an offense.
Secretary for Security of Hong Kong John Lee described the office building as a "crime scene," urging staff members of the paper to be cautious and not to engage in activities in violation of the national security law. The five arrested would be investigated overnight as the police have gathered sufficient evidence, Hong Kong media said, citing people familiar with the matter.
When some Western media and observers continued portraying the latest police operation as a blow to freedom of speech and taking the newspaper as a "pro-democracy" publication, central and local government officials as well as legal experts emphasized that no one could disguise their purpose of inciting crimes or endangering national security, which has nothing to do with journalism.
Lee told a press conference on Thursday that the case against Apple Daily involves 40 articles, both reports and editorials, and the police will talk about the evidence with the Secretary for Justice, which won't be disclosed while there is evidence indicating that the suspects planned to collude with foreign forces.
The central government's office for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong, the liaison office of the central government in Hong Kong and the office of the commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all voiced support for the police operation. The office for safeguarding national security said all organizations, institutions and individuals should comply with the national security law and should not engage in activities endangering national security.
The Basic Law guarantees Hong Kong residents can enjoy freedom of speech, press and publication, but none of the rights and freedoms are borderless, and they cannot cross the bottom line of national security, which is also a clear stipulation of relevant international conventions and a general rule in the legal practices of various countries, the liaison office said, noting that the freedom of the press is not a "shield" for illegal acts.
The evidences about this case are clear, which has not related to the freedom of press at all, said the spokesperson of the office of the commissioner of the MFA on Thursday, noting that certain external forces hyping on the case are completely confusing right and wrong, fully showing that they are using the excuse of freedom of press to interfere in the law enforcement in Hong Kong.
There will be a lasting effect on the operations of Apple Daily after their bank account of HK$18 million was seized or frozen. The newspaper might not have enough money to continue their operations, Lawrence Ma, barrister and chairman at Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"Convenience stores and newspaper stalls that sell Apple Daily newspapers as well as the web host for Apple Daily's server have to seek legal advice on whether their continuous support by providing a marketing platform may infringe the law," Ma said.
Chief editors and company directors will likely face criminal charges under Article 29 of National Security Law for collaborating with foreign powers to endanger national security, with medium to long-term imprisonment possible upon conviction, the legal expert said.
Many Hong Kong people refer to Apple Daily as the "poisoned Apple" as the self-styled media outlet frequently runs paparazzi-style fake news, and is keen on vulgar, entertainment-driven reporting. It also published a special coverage of the black-clad riots in the summer of 2019 in an attempt to beautify and glorify the violence to attract more youngsters to "take part in illegal assemblies." With its live-streaming program "Live chat with Jimmy Lai," the founder of the paper published several articles asking foreign countries to sanction the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong over the past year, and the paper also referred to the central government as "authoritarian" in an article in April, claiming that countries, especially the US, should "hold China accountable," to prevent the Communist Party of China from "suppressing Hong Kong."
The second raid on Apple Daily shows authorities are determined to clean up the evil legacy of Lai. More editors or journalists from Apple Daily being arrested cannot be ruled out, Fan Peng, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Political Sciences in Beijing, told the Global Times on Thursday.
"Freedom has boundaries; people with freedom can't break the law and can't jeopardize the country's development interests and national security. This is law enforcement under the rule of law," he said.
While some legal experts said the operations of Apple Daily may face grave difficulties, the possibility of a complete shutdown can't be ruled out.
"Hong Kong press freedom will continue, but any media outlet that infringes on the national security law will not be protected. Media can no longer use 'press freedom' as a defense against criminal charges," Ma said.