Hong Kong police raided the offices of a prominent pro-democracy newspaper on Thursday, arresting senior editors and executives while freezing financial accounts in the latest crackdown under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing.
Five people were arrested for "suspected contravention" of the law, Hong Kong Police's National Security Department said in a statement after the raid on Apple Daily's newsroom.
It did not name the individuals but said the 4 men and 1 woman were all company directors aged between 47 and 63, and currently being detained for investigation. It added that searches were also carried out at their residences.
Police said they had evidence that articles published by Apple Daily played a "crucial part" in a conspiracy with foreign countries to impose sanctions against China and Hong Kong, in response to a deepening crackdown on civil liberties.
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The raid is the latest setback for free speech in the territory and represents another blow for media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the tabloid's imprisoned owner, who is a staunch Beijing critic. Lai is currently serving a sentence for taking part in illegal assemblies, including mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Apple Daily, an outspoken tabloid known for its pro-democracy stance and founded 26 years ago, named those arrested as: editor-in-chief Ryan Law, chief executive officer Cheung Kim-hung, chief operating officer Royston Chow, associate publisher Chan Pui-man and platform director Cheung Chi-wai.
The newspaper vowed to "do its best to publish as usual" in articles posted on its website on Thursday detailing the incident, which they said happened around 7:30 a.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) and involved 500 police officers and the confiscation of 38 computers.
"Today's Hong Kong feels unfamiliar and leaves us speechless. ...Nevertheless, the staff of Apple Daily is standing firm," the paper said in an open letter to its readers.
This is the second time police have raided Apple Daily — they did so last August shortly after the security law came into effect.
The early Thursday morning raid was captured by staff and journalists, who posted footage and photos online showing police sitting at computers in the newsroom, sifting through papers and taking away boxes in a van.
In comments likely to raise further alarm over media freedoms in the global financial hub, Security Secretary John Lee described the Apple Daily newsroom as a "crime scene." The operation was aimed at those who use reporting as a "tool to endanger" national security and not at the media industry as a whole, he told reporters.
"Normal journalists are different from these people. Don't collude with them," Lee said.
He added that police had also frozen $18 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.3 million) of assets owned by three companies linked to Apple Daily.
China's Hong Kong Liaison Office said Thursday that it firmly supported what it described as "just action" by the police to "maintain national security and the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong."
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a statement that the security law had been "weaponized" against press, while international human rights groups also condemned the police action.
"This raid and the arrests are a new low in what seems to be a bottomless assault on press freedom," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch told NBC News. "It has nothing to do with enforcing the law and everything to do with political retribution."
Amnesty International also called the arrests "deeply disturbing" and warned they could have profound implications for other media outlets in Hong Kong.
"With this latest brazen attack on one of its fiercest media critics, the Hong Kong authorities are ramping up their crackdown on press freedom and using the pretext of 'national security' to justify it," said Amnesty's Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra, in a statement.
The national security law was passed last June, signed by China's President Xi Jinping and later formally adopted by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It paved the way for one of the most profound changes to life in the territory since a 'one country, two systems' policy was agreed between Britain and China in 1997, guaranteeing the former British colony freedoms not granted on the mainland.
Since coming into force, the law has been heavily criticized by the United States and other Western countries who view it as a tool to suppress dissent and a means for Beijing to further assert its authority over Hong Kong, setting the territory on a more authoritarian path.
Beijing has also imposed electoral changes and arrested hundreds of activists as it quells opposition, leading many to flee the city and continue their activism overseas.
The security law punishes anything deemed as subversion, secessionism, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
However, Lam has previously said it was necessary for Hong Kong's security and would not affect legitimate rights and freedoms or erode the territory's autonomy.
Tsui Lokman, an assistant professor of journalism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told NBC News that Apple Daily was being made an example of and that the charges were deliberately vague.
"This will further instill a culture of self-censorship in Hong Kong," Tsui said. "Every news organization will now know that if you do not self-censor, the authorities can come after you."