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China – Hong Kong: Dawn raid of independent newspaper highlights ongoing assault against freedom of expression by government

Friday 18 June 2021 - 12:47pm


Image courtesy of Studio Incendo

Update - 24 June 2021

The forced closure of Apple Daily, with its final print edition of one million copies published today, is a stark illustration of the Hong Kong government's blatant disregard of its ongoing obligations to uphold the right to freedom of expression under Art. 27 of the Basic Law, and Art. 19 of the ICCPR.

The latest arrest of Yeung Ching-Kei (pen name, Li Ping), an opinion writer who was a regular contributor to Apple Daily, sends a clear signal that the Hong Kong government now views public opinion as a potential security threat.

The completely disproportionate use of national security legislation to repress peaceful expression is an outrageous dereliction of the Hong Kong government's duty to protect the rights of its citizens.

PEN International calls for the immediate end to the use of national security legislation to silence government criticism, and it continues its call for the immediate and unconditional release of those wrongfully detained for their peaceful expression by the Hong Kong government.

PEN International is deeply concerned by reports of a sweeping crackdown taking place against Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, the most prolific pro-democracy news outlet in the territory, for publishing articles deemed by the authorities to violate the deeply problematic National Security Law (NSL). We call for an immediate end to the Hong Kong government’s treatment of peaceful criticism as a national security threat. PEN International also calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those wrongfully detained for their peaceful expression.

On 17 June 2021, an estimated 500 police officers carried out dawn raids of the newspaper’s headquarters, seizing computers and other equipment necessary for journalistic work. Coinciding with the raid, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and four other executives were arrested in their homes and the financial assets of three companies connected to the publication were frozen, severely impacting the newspaper's ability to continue operating. The shockingly disproportionate scenes of hundreds of police officers raiding a prominent Hong Kong newspaper provides a lurid picture of how the NSL has been used to by the authorities to completely undermine the territory’s constitutional protections for freedom of speech and expression.

In a televised statement, Hong Kong’s security chief, John Lee, accused those detained of using ‘journalistic work as a tool to endanger national security’ and gave a chilling threat to anyone seen to associate with them. On 18 June, two of the detained executives were formally charged under the NSL and were subsequently denied bail.

Apple Daily has long served as an important source of independent news in Hong Kong, which has brought it into the crosshairs of the government as part of its efforts to silence all critical reporting of its escalating authoritarianism. The newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, is currently serving a 20-month prison sentence in connection with his public support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He is also imminently due to go on trial on separate national security charges that could result in a life sentence.

‘The arrest of senior editors at Apple Daily comes on top of Jimmy Lai's unjust arrest and is intended to prevent scrutiny, stop investigative reporting, and stifle criticism in Hong Kong. It shows the dismaying, unsurprising and depressing decline of democracy in Hong Kong. The Joint Declaration of 1984 no longer matters, the Basic Law is now in tatters. Hong Kong was meant to transform China; China is instead taming Hong Kong. We stand in solidarity with all those who want to reclaim Hong Kong's spirit using peaceful means,’ said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

The NSL, brought into effect in June 2020, provides authorities with sweeping powers to clamp down on any expression of dissent and has been used to detain dozens of individuals who have peacefully criticised the government. The resulting climate of censorship has had a devastating impact on free expression across the territory, with any word spoken or sentence written carrying the threat of imprisonment should it be deemed critical of the authorities' stranglehold over Hong Kong society.

Despite Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s dismissal of concerns that the NSL would undermine basic freedoms, within just months of its enactment numerous activists have been arrested for their peaceful expression, politically sensitive books have reportedly vanished from public libraries, and proposed reforms to university and school curriculums threaten to tarnish Hong Kong’s once respected reputation for academic freedom. Earlier this month, a museum dedicated to the remembrance of the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was forced to close on the eve of the 32nd anniversary of the brutal crackdown.

PEN International calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all those wrongfully detained for their peaceful expression by the Hong Kong government. National security should never be used as a pretext to silence legitimate criticism.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org