HONG KONG — Hong Kong police arrested a senior journalist from the Apple Daily newspaper at the airport Sunday as he attempted to leave the city, four days after the paper’s forced closure, in the latest crackdown by Beijing under the sweeping new national security law.
Police confirmed in a statement to NBC News that a 57-year-old man had been arrested for “conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign sources to endanger national security” — a crime punishable by up to life in prison.
The journalist, who has not been officially named, is now the seventh Apple Daily staff member to be arrested on national security charges in recent weeks.
Police raided Apple Daily’s offices earlier this month, arresting five of its senior editors and executives, while also freezing financial accounts. The paper — one of Hong Kong’s most popular newspapers and a fierce China critic — published its final edition Thursday amid ever-deepening restrictions imposed by Beijing, following monthslong protests in 2019.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
The paper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, was arrested last year and charged with national security offences. While in detention, he was given a 20-month sentence for taking part in illegal assemblies.
Apple Daily’s final 1 million copies were sold out at newsstands across the city as thousands of Hong Kongers braved torrential rain to bid a painful farewell to the paper. It is the latest setback for the city’s press freedom and free speech, which activists say has been stifled under the new law that aims to quash dissent and quell pro-democracy activism in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association in a statement Monday condemned the latest arrest and accused the police of targeting journalists.
“HKJA reiterates that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are both Hong Kong’s core values,” it said in a Facebook statement. “If the ‘writer’s pen’ is forbidden, Hong Kong will hardly be regarded as an international city.”
It added that the chain of recent news events has “almost completely killed the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”
Meanwhile, news of the arrest was trending on China’s heavily censored social media app Weibo, with Guancha.cn’s news story read more than 59 million times.
“The law is clear. Those who distort the facts and incite social instability should have expected this kind of result,” user Moqing wrote on the platform.
Li Wei, a commentator with Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based broadcaster known for taking a pro-government line, wrote: “This ‘fruit’ media is trying to mess up Hong Kong. The media who want to mess up the city continue to turn the non-existent into rumor, then amplify and spread it, tipping society into a panic.”
Separately, the crowd-funded pro-democracy digital news outlet Stand News announced late Sunday that it would stop accepting monthly donations and take down older opinion articles — a step it has taken to reduce the risks under the national security law.
The six directors of the outlet, including the Hong Kong singer and activist Denise Ho, have stepped down.
“[We] have been through misery and hardship with Hong Kong people over the past six and a half years,” the outlet said in the statement. “We will continue to… walk with Hong Kongers, treasure the hearts of our patrons and readers, do a good job with every piece of news, write and record Hong Kong.”
Christina Ching Yin Chan contributed.