Lai was arrested on Monday for suspected collusion with foreign forces under the new national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong, the media tycoon’s aide said on Twitter.
“Jimmy Lai is being arrested for collusion with foreign powers at this time,” Mark Simon, a senior executive at Lai’s media company Next Digital, which publishes local tabloid Apple Daily, said early on Monday.
A police source told AFP news agency that Lai was arrested on charges of colluding with foreign forces — one of the new national security offences — and with fraud.
Lai is the most high-profile person to have been arrested so far under the new national security law for Hong Kong. Police on the island said in a statement that seven people in all had been arrested on suspicion of violating the law, but did not provide details of who was taken into custody.
Beijing imposed the legislation on Hong Kong at the end of June, following months of anti-government protests last year.
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The new law prohibits what Beijing views as secessionist, subversive or terrorist activities or what it sees as foreign intervention in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
Police now have sweeping powers to conduct searches without warrants and order internet service providers and platforms to remove messages deemed to be in violation of the legislation.
Hong Kong media vulnerable
Lai became an outspoken advocate for democracy in Hong Kong after the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Chinese state media has labeled Lai a leading “black hand” colluding with foreign forces to destroy the mainland.
Lai, together with 14 other pro-democracy figures, is currently facing charges of organizing and participating in several massive anti-government protests deemed unlawful last year.
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Media groups warn local outlets in Hong Kong are particularly vulnerable to the new security law.
Much of the law is broadly worded and criminalizes certain speech, such as a ban on instigating hatred towards the government or advocating independence.
One provision orders authorities to “strengthen the management” of foreign news organizations.
Beijing has made little secret of its desire to rein in Hong Kong’s media, both domestic and foreign.
Hong Kong reporters have historically been a crucial conduit of information out of mainland China. And the city’s press corps routinely barrages officials with the kind of critical questioning that would be unthinkable north of the border.
But journalists now fear they may inadvertently cross a red line by reporting what others say.
This is an updated version of a previous article.
sri/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)