The U.S. State Department on Thursday strongly condemned the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government for using the draconian national security law as a political tool to target pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily.
On June 17, some 500 Hong Kong police officers raided Apple Daily’s headquarters and arrested five directors of the newspaper including its editor-in-chief. The police accused them of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” because the paper had published more than 30 articles since 2019 calling for foreign countries to impose sanctions on China and Hong Kong. The paper is one of the only remaining outlets still publishing voices critical of Beijing and the ruling Chinese Communist Party and views supportive of Hong Kong protesters.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a telephone briefing on Thursday said the collusion charges “appear to be entirely politically motivated.” He added that the five directors should be “immediate release.”
“We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities’ selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations,” Price said.
He said the State Department found it deplorable that Hong Kong police would cite those articles as evidence, since “exchanging views with foreigners in journalism should never be a crime.”
“We call on authorities to stop targeting the independent and free media. Efforts to stifle media freedom and to restrict the free flow of information not only undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions but they also hurt Hong Kong’s credibility and viability as an international hub,” Price said.
At around 3:30 p.m. local time on Friday, the Hong Kong government announced that the city’s national security department has officially charged two of the five directors for collusion offenses. They will be brought to a local court in the morning on June 19. The remaining three continue to be held for further investigation.
Hong Kong’s press freedom has plummeted in recent years, in particular after the national security law went into effect in July 2020. According to the press freedom index compiled by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), the index for journalists hit a record low of 32.1 last year—down from 40.9 in 2018.
The reason for the decline was that “journalists are more cautious than ever when they criticize the HKSAR Government and the Central Government [Chinese regime], and managements have put more pressure on them.”
The Thursday raid was the second police raid at the paper’s headquarters after July 2020. A month later, 200 Hong Kong police officers stormed the newsroom. The paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, is currently in prison for his role in pro-democracy, anti-Beijing protests in 2019. Lai also awaits trial in a separate national security trial.
On Friday, many Hongkongers rushed to local newsstands to buy a copy of the paper to show their support for the journalists, with some buying multiple copies. According to Apple Daily, an unnamed local bought 300 copies of the Friday paper at a newsstand in the district of Mong Kok and elsewhere so that he could distribute them at his restaurant.
A woman surnamed Lau told Apple Daily that said she would continue buying the paper even if it only printed the words “Apple Daily” while the rest was blank. Another woman surnamed Chow criticized local police, saying that she felt the police could do whatever they wanted.
Chow added that there was nothing she could do except to spend HK$10 ($1.29) to buy a copy of the newspaper.
Apple Daily increased its press run on Friday to 500,000 copies, an increase from the 80,000 printed on Thursday.
The United States is not the only country to voice its criticism against the raid and arrests. Australia, Canada, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Taiwan have all spoken about their concerns.
“Australia is concerned at the arrest of journalists from Apple Daily, and the impact this will have on freedom of expression in Hong Kong, as provided in the Basic Law underpinned by the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” stated Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs on Twitter.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the United Kingdom signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover back to China in 1997. Under the treaty, the Basic Law was drafted, which was meant to guarantee Hongkongers basic freedoms that are not granted to mainland Chinese under the regime’s rule for at least 50 years under the “one country, two systems” model.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Hong Kong authorities to release the executives and “to stop prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs.”
“The continued assault on press freedoms in Hong Kong is unacceptable and inconsistent with the rights and freedoms guaranteed under law to the people of Hong Kong,” Meeks said in a statement.
Office of the Commissioner at the CCP’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong, in a statement issued on June 17, slammed western politicians and foreign media for commenting on the raid and the arrest of five Apple Daily directors, accusing them of “interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and China’s internal affairs.”
Many rights groups around the world have also publicly expressed their concern, including the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong, Reporters Without Borders, Hong Kong Watch, Freedom House, the World Association of News Publishers, the World Editors Forum, the International Press Institute, Amnesty International, and the International Federation of Journalists.
“The newsroom raid and arrest of Apple Daily staff reflect an acceleration of Hong Kong authorities’ systematic efforts to transform the territory’s institutions into authoritarian extensions of the Chinese Communist Party,” stated Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.
He added: “Treating independent, fact-based journalism as a threat to national security is an unacceptable attack on press freedom and comes amid a wider crackdown on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong.”