Hong Kong police charged two top editors and two editorial writers at Apple Daily with collusion weeks after the city's largest pro-democracy newspaper was forced to cease publication and its assets were frozen.
Executive Editor-in-Chief Lam Man-chung was the eighth executive or journalist at the shuttered newspaper arrested in recent weeks as city authorities crack down on dissent and China's central government brings the semi-autonomous territory more under its control.
Lam was arrested Wednesday, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper, which cited an unnamed source. Associate Publisher and Deputy Chief Editor Chan Pui-man and editorial writers Fung Wai-kong and Yeung Ching-kee were also detained Wednesday after their bail was revoked, local media reported.
All four were charged with conspiring to "collude with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security" under the city's year-old national security law. Police confirmed four people, aged between 51 and 57, had been charged but did not identify them. They will appear in court Thursday.
Chan was among five Apple Daily executives and editors arrested on June 17, while Yeung and Fung were arrested days later. Fung was arrested at the airport while allegedly attempting to leave to the United Kingdom.
Hong Kong security minister Chris Tang denied that the arrests would trigger a "white terror" — a term referring to a climate of fear caused by political repression — among journalists.
"Whoever committed an offense will be arrested, disregarding their background, whatever they do, or what are their professions," he said.
"It doesn't really matter. If they committed an offense, they will be arrested. And if there is any evidence, they will be prosecuted."
The Hong Kong Journalists Association criticized the "repeated targeting of journalists" from Apple Daily, stating that it was "shocked and puzzled" by the arrest of Lam since the newspaper had already ceased operations.
The association also asked the government to explain how news and publishing work which has been legally carried out and is protected under the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, could endanger national security.
"Freedom of the press and the freedom to publish are important cornerstones for the success of an international city," it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
In June, police raided the Apple Daily's offices, taking away hard drives and laptops as evidence. The arrests of top executives, editors and journalists at the paper, as well as the freezing of $2.3 million worth of assets, led it to cease its operations last month. It sold a million copies of its final edition.
Following months of anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing last year imposed a sweeping national security law in the semi-autonomous city that critics say restricts freedoms promised to the former British colony that are not found on mainland China.
The law criminalizes secessionism, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city's affairs. Since it was implemented in June last year, more than 100 pro-democracy supporters have been arrested under the law, and many others have fled abroad.