HONG KONG - Hong Kong police arrested five executives of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper on Thursday with a warrant to seize journalistic materials for the first time, in the latest blow to Jimmy Lai, the tabloid's owner and a staunch Beijing critic.
The warrant, which police said was aimed at gathering evidence for a case involving the national security law that Beijing imposed last year, raises further concerns about media freedoms in the Chinese-ruled city.
"This is a blatant attack on the editorial side of Apple Daily. They are arresting editors," Mark Simon, an adviser to Lai who is outside Hong Kong, told Reuters. "They're arresting the top editorial folks."
It was the second time for police to raid the Apple Daily headquarters; 200 officers went in last year to arrest Lai on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces.
Lai has been in detention since December, denied bail under the security law and serving several sentences for taking part in unauthorized assemblies, including during the global financial hub's mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
The security law was Beijing's first major move to set China's most restive city on an authoritarian path. It punishes anything Beijing deems as subversion, secessionism, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison.
National security police said in a statement that five directors of a company had been arrested on suspicion of collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.
Police said officers had searched a media company in the Tseung Kwan O district with a warrant that covers "the power of searching and seizure of journalistic materials."
The operation was ongoing and aimed to gather evidence for a case related to suspected contravention of the security law.
It said only that the five included four men and a woman aged between 47 and 63. It did not provide other details.
Apple Daily said five of its directors, including editor-in-chief Ryan Law, chief executive officer Cheung Kim-hung, Chief Operating Officer Chow Tat-kuen, Deputy Chief Editor Chan Puiman and Chief Executive Editor Cheung Chi-wai had all been arrested in morning raids.
The newspaper said that at about 7:30 a.m. local time around 100 officers arrived at its headquarters and cordoned off the area.
Pictures published by Apple Daily showed police sitting at reporters' desks and using their computers. A person streaming a live feed for Apple Daily's Facebook page said reporters were prevented from accessing certain floors or getting their equipment or notebooks.
Chief editor Law was seen walking in handcuffs, flanked by police officers. The general news desk at Apple Daily told reporters in a text message seen by Reuters to carry on with their assignments outside the building for the time being.
The move is the latest blow to Apple Daily after authorities last month directed that jailed tycoon Lai's shares in Next Digital, publisher of the newspaper, be frozen.
Trading in the company's stock on the Hong Kong bourse was suspended on Thursday.
Asked how long he thinks the newspaper can survive, Simon said: "It's not up to us. It's up to them. There's 100 police officers in our newsroom. They decide, not us."
Apple Daily is an unapologetic tabloid that mixes pro-democracy discourse with celebrity gossip and investigations of those in power, and is popular in Hong Kong.
In May, Reuters reported that Hong Kong's security chief sent letters to Lai and branches of HSBC and Citibank threatening up to seven years in jail for any dealings with the billionaire's accounts in the city.
Lai's assets were also frozen under the same law.