By ZEN SOO
HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong authorities arrested media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Aug. 10, broadening their enforcement of a new national security law and stoking fears of a crackdown on the semi-autonomous region’s free press. Police were seen carting away boxes of what they said was evidence at Lai’s pro-democracy Next Digital headquarters. He was released on bail in the early hours of Aug. 12.
In the evening, police arrested pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting on charges of inciting secession under the same law, according to tweets by fellow activist Nathan Law, who left Hong Kong for Britain soon after the law took effect. An earlier post on Chow’s official Facebook page said police had arrived at her home and her lawyers were rushing to the scene, and a separate post later confirmed that she had been taken away by police.
The moves showed China’s determination to enforce the new law and curb dissent after months of massive pro-democracy demonstrations last year.
The arrest of Lai, two of his sons and several company officers and the search of Next Digital marked the first time the law was used against news media. Next Digital operates Apple Daily, a feisty pro-democracy tabloid that often condemns China’s Communist Party-led government.
“Raiding a news institution is a severe attack on press freedom and should not be tolerated in a civilized society,” Next Digital said in a statement. “Hong Kong’s press freedom is now hanging by a thread, but our staff will remain fully committed to our duty to defend the freedom of the press.”
On July 1, it condemned the new national security law on its front page, calling it “the final nail in the coffin” for the “one country, two systems” framework under which the former British colony has been able to enjoy much greater civil liberties than in mainland China since its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Following Lai’s arrest, about 200 police raided Next Digital’s headquarters, cordoning off the area, searching desks and at times getting into heated exchanges with staff. What police were looking for in the building wasn’t clear, although they later said they took away 25 boxes of evidence for processing.
Lai, who was arrested at his mansion in Kowloon in the morning, was also brought to the headquarters of Next Digital, where he remained for about two and a half hours before police took him away in a car.
Chris Yeung, chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association said, “With the passage of the national security law and the really tough powers given to the police in their operations, we have seen now what we call ‘white terror’ become a reality, which will affect media organizations and journalists’ reporting.”
Police allowed journalists from only 15 select media to cover the raid from inside the cordoned-off area. They barred public broadcaster RTHK and foreign outlets including The Associated Press, saying only larger local media that had not obstructed or posed a threat to police in the past could enter.
Senior Superintendent Steve Li said the arrests were not politically motivated.
The share price of Next Digital soared over 200% in the afternoon after Lai’s, following posts on a popular online forum encouraging investors to support the company by buying its stock.
The reasons for the charge against Lai weren’t clear.
“I have always thought I might one day be sent to jail for my publications or for my calls for democracy in Hong Kong,” Lai wrote. “But for a few tweets, and because they are said to threaten the national security of mighty China? That’s a new one, even for me.