Two executives of Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily have been charged for violating national security law after police raided the newsroom on Thursday, June 17. Authorities claimed that several of the newspaper’s articles were in violation of Hong Kong’s new security legislation. The case has reignited concern internationally over media freedom in financial hub, receiving criticism from international rights groups, press associations, and Western governments.
On Thursday, 500 police raided the media outlet’s newsroom, arresting five executives on suspicion of breaching national security laws. According to Apple Daily, three of the five were released on bail the following evening, while the Chief Executive Officer Cheung Kim-hung and Editor-In-Chief Ryan Law remained in custody.
“I know that there are still two other colleagues who cannot come out yet. They are being charged under the national security law. I am very upset. I hope they can be bailed out soon,” said the Deputy Chief Editor as she left the police station late Friday night.
Reuters reports that the pair were charged with “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” Specifically, they are facing accusations of collusion with Apple Daily owner and staunch Beijing critic Jimmy Lai between July 1 2020 and April 3 April 2021. In a charge sheet, the two allegedly requested a foreign country, person or organization “to impose sanctions or blockade or engage in other hostile activities against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or the People’s Republic of China.”
Law and Cheung appeared at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts on Saturday and were denied bail by Judge Victor So due to , “insufficient evidence to believe they would not endanger national security,” according to Reuters.
After violent demonstrations erupted across Hong Kong in 2019 over an extradition law, a broader anti-China movement has evolved in the city. Since then, Beijing has sought to quell pro-democracy sentiment. The National Security Law, which came into force in Hong Kong just before midnight on June 30, 2020 criminalises what Beijing broadly refers to as acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” with punishments of up to life in prison.
According to the BBC, the law effectively curtails protest and freedom of speech, which Beijing claims will “restore stability” in the Special Administrative Region. In essence, it makes it easier to “punish protestors and significantly reduces the city’s autonomy.”
“It is clear that the law will have a severe impact on freedom of expression, if not personal security, on the people of Hong Kong,” Professor Johannes Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, told the BBC before the passage of the law.
The Apple Daily raid has drawn international condemnation from Western nations, global rights groups, and press associations. In an email to Reuters, the chief U.N. spokesperson for human rights Rupert Colville said that the raid, “sends a further chilling message for media freedom.”
“We call on Hong Kong authorities to respect their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in line with the Basic Law, in particular freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the right to participate in public affairs,” Colville stated.
In a press briefing, U.S. State Department Spokesman Ned Price expressed concern over China’s increased efforts to, “wield the national security law as a tool to suppress independent media, to silence dissenting views, and to stifle freedom of expression.” He also cited Beijing’s obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration – a binding international agreement – to uphold the high degree of autonomy and protected rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
Since the protests in 2019, China’s efforts to supress dissent in the financial hub have only increased in intensity. Experts predict that the crackdown on media will go beyond Apple Daily, calling into question the fate of media freedom in Hong Kong. According to Tom Grundy, editor in chief of independent online media outlet Hong Kong Free Press, this is the first time a media organisation has been raided over the newspaper’s output. However, the police have not clarified whether the suspicions concern articles, opinion pieces or editorials. “The rules are unclear by design, as the security law is intended to make the media self-censor,” he told Reuters.
The ease with which China has sent ripples through the city’s media reminds citizens and the international community alike that the troubling prospect of full government control over the press is not far from reality. Since the passage of the National Security Law, the, “one country two systems,” principle has been laid to rest. Yet, Hong Kong’s credibility as an international hub rests on the viability of its democratic institutions. Press freedom must be protected in Hong Kong, and a firmer stance must be taken by governments around the world against China’s gradual dismantling of Hong Kong’s autonomy.