HONG KONG - Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded on Tuesday (June 22) to criticism of the government's actions against pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, calling it an attempt to "beautify" acts endangering national security.
The Hong Kong leader also said she may not be able to legislate Article 23 of the Basic Law, or Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, in her term as leader.
"I still have about a year or so in my term. I don't think we have the ability to complete before the end of the term," said Mrs Lam at the weekly briefing ahead of the executive council meeting on Tuesday.
According to Article 23, Hong Kong has to enact laws to prohibit seven acts that endanger national security, including treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Central government. This law has to be enacted in addition to the national security law that was imposed on the territory by Beijing at the end of June last year.
"We will do as much as we can. Of course, when it comes to legislation, we need the LegCo (Legislative Council). The new term of LegCo will only start in January next year so we don't have a whole year but we will act in accordance with the Basic Law and Article Seven of the national security law to make preparations," added Mrs Lam.
The government froze HK$18 million (S$3.12 million) belonging to popular tabloid Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital. Mrs Lam said the national security law is "preventive and penalising".
When asked what is normal journalistic work, she said: "I believe media friends have the ability to grasp what types of activities would endanger national security.
"It is fine to criticise the Hong Kong government. However, if there is an intent or organised activity to incite or subvert the government, that's another thing."
In particular, Mrs Lam stressed that the accusations by the United States that the national security law is used as a tool to stifle freedom of expression and to suppress the media in Hong Kong "are wrong".
"What we are talking about is not exchanging views between foreigners and journalists. It is violating the law as defined in the national security law and based on very clear evidence, which will bring the case to court.
"So don't try to underplay the significance of breaking the national security law and don't try to beautify these acts of endangering national security," she said.
Mrs Lam pointed out that "whenever they (the foreign governments) talk about things that they are doing, they will put it under the banner of safeguarding national security".
She questioned what these governments' basis is for applying "double standards" to the situation in Hong Kong and China.
Her comments come as Apple Daily aired its last live news show on Monday night, days ahead of an expected closure of the newspaper and its online operation.
Apple Daily staff were told on Monday the newspaper does not have sufficient funds to continue operations after Hong Kong authorities froze its assets as part of a national security probe.
On Friday (June 18), Apple Daily's editor-in-chief Ryan Law and chief executive of Next Digital Cheung Kim Hung were charged with conspiring to collude with foreign forces to endanger national security. They are in remand and now face the prospect of life imprisonment.
Five executives of Apple Daily and Next Digital were arrested on Thursday, including the two men charged. The other three - chief operating officer Chow Tat Kuen, deputy chief editor Chan Pui Man, and chief executive editor Cheung Chi Wai - are out on bail but not charged.
The arrests were made the same morning 500 officers raided Apple Daily's Tseung Kwan O office, prompting the city's journalism bodies to decry the move as a heavy blow to press freedom.
Police have said the paper has published at least 30 articles since 2019 that may have breached national security by calling for foreign sanctions against the Hong Kong and central governments.
The tabloid, published by Next Digital, is often highly critical of Beijing and Hong Kong governments.
Tycoon Jimmy Lai, an outspoken Beijing critic and founder of Apple Daily, is in jail for taking part in illegal assemblies. He also faces trial for endangering national security.