HONG KONG (Reuters) -Hong Kong police arrested a former senior journalist with the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper on Sunday night on a suspected national security offence as he was trying to catch a flight out of the city, media reported.
Police, who typically do not identify arrested people, said in a statement that a 57-year-old man had been arrested at the airport for "conspiring to collude with foreign countries or foreign forces to endanger national security". The man had been detained and investigations were continuing, police said.
Hong Kong media identified the man as Fung Wai-kong, an editor and columnist at the now-closed newspaper. If confirmed, he would be the seventh staffer at the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper to be arrested on national security grounds in recent weeks.
Reuters could not independently confirm that the arrested man was Fung. He could not be contacted for comment and it was not immediately known if he had legal representation.
The Hong Kong government did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Next Digital, the publisher of Apple Daily, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The Apple Daily, a popular tabloid, was forced to fold following a raid by 500 police on its headquarters on June 17 and the freezing of key assets and bank accounts. It printed its final edition last Thursday.
Authorities say dozens of the paper's articles may have violated a national security law that Beijing imposed on the financial hub last year, the first instance of authorities taking aim at media reports under the legislation.
Critics of the law, introduced last June, say it has been used to stifle dissent and erode fundamental freedoms in the former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Authorities say the law has restored stability after months of often-violent pro-democracy protests.
Officials in Hong Kong and China have repeatedly said media freedoms are respected but not absolute and they cannot endanger national security. Police have said the action against the Apple Daily was not targeting the media industry as a whole.
Hong Kong government leader Carrie Lam said last week that criticism of the raid on the newspaper amounted to attempts to "beautify" acts that endangered national security. Chinese officials have denounced the criticism as interference.
The shutdown of the Apple Daily is the latest setback for media tycoon Jimmy Lai, the newspaper's owner and a staunch Beijing critic, whose assets have been frozen under the legislation and who is serving prison sentences for taking part in illegal assemblies.
Lai is also awaiting trial under the national security law after being charged with collusion with foreign forces. If convicted, he can be sentenced to life in jail.
The Hong Kong Journalists' Association, reacting to reports of the airport arrest, condemned the police for targeting journalists again, and asked them to explain the incident.
The shutdown of Apple Daily has sent a chill through the city's media. Online pro-democracy outlet Stand News said late on Sunday it would stop accepting monthly donations from readers and had taken down commentaries from the platform.
It said in a Facebook post its action was aimed at protecting supporters, authors and editorial staff and reducing risks of all parties, adding that "speech crimes" had come to Hong Kong. It did not elaborate.
Lam Yin-pong, assignment editor for Stand News, told Reuters the precautions were partly a response to the arrests at Apple Daily.
"This was one of the main motivating factors,” he said. "But having these precaution measures doesn’t mean that we think we’ve done anything illegal."
He said most Stand News staff would continue reporting independently and he had not heard of any specific warnings from authorities.
Stand News, founded in 2014, said most of its directors, including barrister Margaret Ng and singer Denise Ho, had stepped down.
Two founding directors, Tony Tsoi and chief editor Chung Pui-kuen, would remain, it said.
Stand News management did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Its charter states that it shall be independent, autonomous and non-profit. It says Stand News is committed to safeguarding Hong Kong's core values of "democracy, human rights, rule of law and justice".
(Reporting by Jessie Pang, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Robert Birsel)