Hong Kong police used a sweeping national security law against a pro-democracy newspaper for the first time on Thursday, arresting five editors and executives on charges of collusion with foreign powers.

Police said they had strong evidence that more than 30 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 crackdown on civil liberties in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

Apple Daily has often criticised the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for tightening control over the city and walking back on promises by Beijing that the territory could retain its freedoms when it was handed over from Britain in 1997.

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, said the raid proved China was using the security law merely to stifle criticism.

"Today’s raids and arrests at Apple Daily in Hong Kong demonstrate Beijing is using the National Security Law to target dissenting voices, not tackle public security," he wrote

"Freedom of the press is one of the rights China promised to protect in the Joint Declaration and should be respected."

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Tory party and co-chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “It’s yet another example of the ghastly dictatorial communist China and its lapdogs, the Hong Kong administration bearing down and trying to snuff out dissent and free speech.

"This is just another example of why the world needs to change it’s attitude to China quickly. It shows how dangerous China is to the concepts of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”

On the day of the imposition of the National Security law, Apple Daily ran a front page saying 'one country, two systems is dead'

Credit: AP

Jimmy Lai, the Apple Daily founder, is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence for his role in unauthorised assemblies in 2019, during a period when Hong Kong saw massive anti-government protest calling for universal suffrage and democratic freedoms.

Police also froze $18 million Hong Kong dollars ($2.3 million) worth of assets belonging to three companies linked to Apple Daily, said Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent at Hong Kong’s National Security Department.

More than 200 police officers were involved in the search of Apple Daily’s offices, and the government said a warrant was obtained to look for evidence of a suspected violation of the national security law.

The newspaper livestreamed the raid and officers seized computers from the newsroom after the courts granted them powers to “seize journalistic material”. 

Apple Daily reported that words like “foreign” and “assembly” were typed by officers in some computers’ search engines during the raid.

Apple Daily COO Royston Chow Tat Kuen (C) is escorted by police officers as he leaves the office

Credit: Shutterstock

Those arrested included Apple Daily’s chief editor Ryan Law, Next Digital CEO Cheung Kim-hung, the publisher’s chief operating officer and two other editors, according to Apple Daily, the South China Morning Post and other local media.

John Lee, the Hong Kong security minister, told a news conference that police will investigate both people in the Apple Daily companies and others to establish if they have assisted in instigating or funding the offences.

He said that the police action against the Apple Daily editors and executives is not related to “normal journalistic work.”

“The action targeted the use of journalistic work as a tool to endanger national security,” he said, warning people to keep a distance from those who are under investigation as they are not “normal journalists.”

He said that anyone who engages in journalistic work in Hong Kong must abide by the laws, including the national security legislation.

“I’d like to say here that you should not collude with these perpetrators, do not be in cahoots with them, otherwise you will pay a hefty price,” Lee said. “Distance yourself from them, otherwise all you are left with are regrets.”

Chris Yeung, Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman, said in an online news conference that the arrests and raid on Apple Daily could create a chilling effect on society. He raised concerns about the use of the national security law as a “weapon to prosecute media executives and journalists for publishing reports and articles that are deemed as a threat to national security.” 

Benedict Rogers, The Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, slammed the operation as “brazen”, adding it was done by “cowards who fear the printed word and the glare of media scrutiny”.

“As a former journalist I am appalled at today’s attack on the free press in Hong Kong. The targeting and arrest of journalists and newspaper employees under the National Security Law for the supposed ‘crime’ of reporting facts that are unflattering to the regime is a reflection of Hong Kong’s fast dissent into authoritarian rule.”

In a letter to readers after the raid, Apple Daily vowed to continue publishing with a clear conscience.