HONG KONG, June 17 (Reuters) – Reporters at Apple Daily, a fiery Hong Kong newspaper, were bracing for some sort of crackdown.
The splashy Chinese-language tabloid – which mixes celebrity gossip, investigating powerful editorials and pro-democracy – has come under increased scrutiny by authorities since the arrest last August of owner Jimmy Lai, who remains in prison for joining unauthorized gatherings.
Yet the early morning raid of 500 police officers on Thursday came as a shock, not only to Apple Daily employees, but also to journalists in China’s freest city and, more broadly, to those concerned about erosion. freedom of the press in the former British colony.
Officers cordoned off the block around the building housing the Apple Daily newsroom and printing press, emptied the newsroom, and searched computers and desks. They arrested five leaders, including the two main editors, on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces”.
Dozens of police officers moved in and swept through the emptied newsroom for half a day, live broadcasts of evicted staff showed from outside.
The raid, the seizure of journalistic material and the arrests of high-level journalists, for alleged violations of a security law imposed by Beijing over the past year, is widely seen as the most direct attack on the free media. Hong Kong since Beijing regained control of the city in 1997.
Now staff are concerned the 26-year-old newspaper may be shut down, said two editors and Mark Simon, Lai’s right-hand man, who fled overseas.
Persistent rumors that authorities will try to “shut down” Apple before July 1, when Chinese President Xi Jinping will lead the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations, seem more likely now, Simon told Reuters.
“I’m starting to think about it,” he said by phone from the United States.
The newsroom began to prepare for a crackdown after the Hong Kong police chief warned in April that media that endanger national security through “fake news” would be the subject of an investigation, said four Apple Daily reporters, ranging from junior to senior.
Morale suffered and a handful of staff resigned. Public meetings were held to reassure staff and contingency plans were drawn up. Most of the employees were given cards with legal contacts and assurances that the company would support everyone legally. Information documents were protected by a firewall or sent abroad to protect information and sources.
On the business side, as the company struggles financially and faces uncertainties over its construction lease, non-core media companies, such as a charity fund run by Lai, have been moved to separate offices, Lai and another senior executive said.
Apple Daily’s advocacy for democratic rights and freedoms has made it a thorn in Beijing’s side ever since Lai, an artisanal textile mogul known for a trendy clothing chain, launched it in 1995. It has shaken it up. the region’s Chinese-language media landscape and has become a democratic icon on the fringes of Communist China.
‘THEY HUGGED EVERYTHING’
Hong Kong security chief John Lee said those arrested were part of a “plot” to use “journalistic work” to impose Western sanctions on Hong Kong. He added that authorities respected media freedoms, but ducked whether Apple would be shut down.
However, some Hong Kong insiders are planning other moves.
“In China’s mind, anything can endanger national interests, so they tighten everything up,” said a government official who deals with media issues. “And until this is all sorted out, they won’t relax the process.”
Last year’s security law was Beijing’s first major move to put Hong Kong on an authoritarian path. It punishes everything Beijing considers to be subversion, secessionism, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces up to life imprisonment.
“It will heighten nervousness and uncertainties as to whether Hong Kong is still a free city if the newspaper disappears,” Chris Yeung, director of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told Reuters.
Ryan Law, who became editor-in-chief of Apple Daily in 2018, a year before the city was rocked by the anti-Beijing protests, has publicly said he will not resign despite the risks.
Hours before his arrest, the bespectacled and soft-spoken editor and a deputy wrote in a letter to readers, “We want to be a newspaper for the people of Hong Kong.
On the contrary, the influence of the newspaper was even wider. It has served as a beacon for media freedom in the Chinese-speaking world, read by dissidents and a more liberal Chinese diaspora, repeatedly challenging Beijing’s growing authoritarianism.
On June 4, when authorities banned the annual candlelight vigil in downtown Victoria Park to commemorate the deadly crackdown on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Apple Daily front page read the next day: “You can shut down Victoria Park. But not lock people’s hearts. “
Some observers say the media crackdown could extend beyond Apple, given China’s relentless drive to take over the city after the 2019 protests.
“This is the first time that a media organization has been raided on the newspaper’s production, although police do not specify whether these are articles, opinion pieces or editorials, “said Tom Grundy, editor of the independent online media Hong Kong Free Press. .
“The rules are inherently unclear, as the security law is meant to encourage the media to censor themselves,” he told Reuters.
But despite the raid, some Apple Daily reporters said they would not be intimidated.
“I will not resign at the moment,” said a reporter who asked not to be identified. “I think that as a journalist there is nothing I can do to respond other than keep reporting.”
Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Additional reporting by Anne-Marie Roantree; Editing by William Mallard
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