Hong Kong (AFP)

Two officials of the pro-democracy Apple Daily, which is very critical of Beijing, appeared in court in Hong Kong on Saturday, the day after their indictment of collusion under a national security law.

Editor-in-chief Ryan Law and managing director Cheung Kim-hung are being prosecuted for "colluding with a foreign country or with external elements in order to endanger national security".

The police announced in a brief statement Friday the indictment of two people aged 47 and 59, without specifying identities.

The newspaper had indicated that it was these two men.

This is the first time that political opinions published by a Hong Kong news outlet have led to a lawsuit under the controversial law imposed by China in 2020 in an attempt to quench dissent in the former British colony.

The newspaper and its owner Jimmy Lai, currently in prison, have long spurred Beijing by steadfastly supporting the pro-democracy movement and sharply criticizing the Chinese leadership.

More than 500 police officers raided the premises of the daily on Thursday and took away computers, hard drives and journalists' notebooks.

Five leaders were arrested.

Two were charged while the other three were released on conditions pending further investigation.

According to an employee who simply identified herself with Chang, many Apple Daily employees, including herself, see "every day as if it's our last" to work at the newspaper.

- Warning shot -

"At first, the authorities indicated that the national security law would only target a small number of people," she told AFP.

"But what happened shows us that it was rubbish."

A journalist who gave only the first name Theresa considers that the legal problems of the newspaper represent a warning shot: "I think that what happens to Apple Daily today may ultimately happen to any other media in town ".

# photo2

Many international media have set up their Asian headquarters in Hong Kong, attracted by pro-business regulations and constitutionally enshrined free speech provisions.

But many are now questioning whether this presence will continue and are making contingency plans as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong through a broad crackdown on dissent.

The local media are living even darker hours.

Journalists' associations say reporters must increasingly self-censor.

Hong Kong is gradually slipping down the annual ranking of the NGO Reporters Without Borders on press freedom, from 18th place in 2002 to 80th this year.

Mainland China is 177th out of 180 countries ranked.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have assured that the arrests do not constitute an attack on the media.

But Hong Kong Security Minister John Lee this week called the Apple Daily a "criminal union".

The newspaper's survival is uncertain.

Jimmy Lai, its 73-year-old wealthy owner, was sentenced to multiple prison terms for his involvement in pro-democracy protests in 2019.

# photo3

He was also indicted under the National Security Act and his assets in Hong Kong were frozen.

Authorities did the same on Thursday with $ 2.3 million in Apple Daily assets.

Police say prosecution - still under this legislation - is also planned against three companies owned by the newspaper, which could be fined or banned.

Mark Simon, an advisor to Mr. Lai living abroad, said the newspaper would have difficulty paying its 700 or so employees.

"Money is not a problem, but Beijing's draconian orders via the NSL are the problem," he told AFP.

© 2021 AFP