Hong Kong's national security police arrested five executives at the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily on Thursday morning and raided its offices for the second time in a year as pressure on the city's media freedom intensifies. This time the raid targeted the news operation itself.
Editor-in-chief Ryan Law and four directors were detained on suspicion of colluding with foreign forces under the controversial national security law, which was imposed by Beijing last summer following the mass pro-democracy protests of 2019.
In a "letter to readers" posted on the Apple Daily website Thursday afternoon, the paper said every one of its journalists has reported the truth, legally and reasonably.
"This is the worst of times in Hong Kong," the letter read. "Today's Hong Kong feels unfamiliar and leaves us speechless. It feels as though we are powerless to stop the regime from exercising its power as it pleases."
Apple Daily is owned by Jimmy Lai, who is already in jail for a string of other protest-related charges while awaiting trial in a national security case. Lai and the paper are openly critical of China.
There has been a wave of arrests and prosecutions since the security law came into effect, but this is the first time police have used a warrant to seize journalistic materials.
Police cited several articles printed in the tabloid and its online edition that they claimed called for foreign sanctions on Hong Kong and China, warning that the public could face prosecution for sharing the reports in question on social media.
Jimmy Lai's longtime advisor, Mark Simon, told ABC News, "Today the Hong Kong government started arresting journalists, three of the five are purely editorial, including Apple Daily's chief editor. Their violation of the security law is doing stories the Chinese Communist Party doesn't want written."
The U.S. State Department condemned Wednesday's arrests and asked for the journalists' immediate release.
"We are deeply concerned by Hong Kong authorities' selective use of the national security law to arbitrarily target independent media organizations," State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Wednesday.
The charges of, quote, collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security appear to be entirely politically motivated."
Apple Daily journalists, initially barred from their own newsroom, livestreamed the raid from the roof of their headquarters as hundreds of police swept through their desks. The livestream reporters eventually returned to the newsroom to find their colleagues' computers, including monitors, confiscated by the police.
Simon said staff at the paper remain determined to do their job, despite the risks. "Reporters are still putting out stories as CCP-instructed Hong Kong police stand behind their desks," he said.
One journalist at the paper, who asked to remain anonymous, told ABC News he was "prepared for this day to come."
"I just didn't expect it to come in such a barbaric and uncivilized way in terms of pushing all journalists out of the newsroom and accessing our computers," the journalist said. "Those are sacred to us as journalists."
Authorities also froze $2.3 million worth of assets owned by three companies linked to Apply Daily, leaving it unclear how staff will be paid.
Speculation has been growing that Apple Daily's days are numbered as Hong Kong's political climate grows more uncertain.
In April, the pro-government paper Ta Kung Pao, owned by Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, published an op-ed calling for Apple Daily to be banned outright under the security law for publishing an article on a outdoor ad in London featuring slogans deemed subversive by Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong's secretary for security, John Lee, said Thursday's arrests and raid are "not related to normal journalistic work."
Lee went on to say that "normal journalistic work takes place lawfully and freely in Hong Kong," adding that the suspects used journalism to "further their criminal activities."
Veteran democrat Emily Lau called the arrests "very alarming and disturbing."
"The huge operation today has again sent out a chilling signal about the threat to press freedom and freedom of expression," Lau said.
Media freedom in Hong Kong has deteriorated in recent years, with increased censorship at the city's once outspoken public broadcaster RTHK.
Once ranked 18th in the world's press freedom index, Hong Kong is now 80th.
Although the odds appear stacked against them, Apple Daily has vowed to "press on."
"The staff of Apple Daily is standing firm. We will continue to persist as Hongkongers and live up to the expectations so that we have no regrets to our readers and the times we are in," the letter read.