Hong Kong pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on Friday increased its print run to 500,000 copies as residents showed support for beleaguered press freedoms.
It came a day after police arrested five senior editors and executives at the paper and froze 2.3 million dollars (£1.65 million) worth of its assets on national security charges.
The raid on the paper’s offices followed by the arrests on Thursday marked the first time the sweeping national security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong last year, was used against the media, one of the symbols of civil liberties in the semi-autonomous city that do not exist elsewhere in China.
Police said the editors were arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion to endanger national security, based on more than 30 articles authorities said had called for international sanctions against China and Hong Kong.
“There are lots of injustices in Hong Kong already. I think there are a lot of things we cannot do anymore,” said resident Lisa Cheung.
“Buying a copy is all we can do. When the law cannot protect Hong Kong people anymore, we are only left to do what we can.”
The front page of Friday’s edition splashed images of the five editors and executives led away in handcuffs. Police also confiscated 44 hard drives worth of news material. A quote from Cheung Kim-hung, the arrested CEO of Apple Daily’s publisher Next Digital, said: “Hang in there, everyone.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a tweet that freedom of the press was one of the rights China had promised to protect for 50 years when Britain handed over Hong Kong in 1997.
“Today’s raids & arrests at Apple Daily in Hong Kong demonstrate Beijing is using the National Security Law to target dissenting voices, not tackle public security,” Mr Raab said.
The national security law was imposed after massive protests in 2019 challenged Beijing’s rule by calling for broader democratic freedoms. It outlaws subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries. The maximum penalty for serious offenders is life imprisonment.
Security Minister John Lee had on Thursday warned other journalists to distance themselves from those under investigation at Apple Daily. He said those arrested had used journalistic work to endanger national security and that anyone who was “in cahoots” with them would pay a hefty price.
The Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement on Thursday that it supported police action, noting that while the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees the freedoms of speech and press, those rights cannot undermine the “bottom line of national security”.
“Freedom of the press is not a ‘shield’ for illegal activities,” the liaison office said.
“We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities’ selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organisations,” Mr Price said, adding the suspected foreign collusion charges appear to be politically motivated.
“As we all know, exchanging views with foreigners in journalism should never be a crime.”
European Union spokesperson, Nabila Massrali, said that the arrests “further demonstrate how the National Security Law is being used to stifle media freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” Media freedom and pluralism are fundamental to Hong Kong’s success under the “one country, two systems” framework, she said.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian rejected the foreign criticism and defended the government’s action, repeating China’s insistence that the national security targets only a “small group of anti-China elements who disrupted Hong Kong and endangered the national security of the country.”
“No right or freedom, including freedom of the press, can break through the bottom line of national security,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing.
“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong, Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, and no country, organisation or individual has the right to intervene,” he said.
Apple Daily has pledged to readers that it will continue its reporting, and on Thursday night invited members of the media to its printing presses to watch its Friday edition roll off the press in a show of commitment.
Its founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence on charges of playing a part in unauthorised protests in 2019. The paper’s average daily circulation has been around 86,000 copies.