Authorities have refused to acknowledge whether more than 30 Apple Daily articles that allegedly breach the national security law are news reports or commentaries, with Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu only noting they are different from "normal journalistic work."
His ambiguous remarks sparked fears in the media as unions said the degree of self-censorship might intensify and severely undermine press freedom.
Police said yesterday that the more than 30 articles in question - in English and Chinese - have been published since 2019, before the introduction of the national security law.
Senior superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah said authorities have "strong evidence" that the articles are part of a conspiracy that called on foreign countries or institutions to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and China.
In a separate press briefing, Lee was repeatedly asked whether the articles were merely citing comments by others or editorials, to which he replied: "The case is still under investigation. I cannot disclose all the details."
But he said the action is not about media and journalistic work, but "a conspiracy in which the suspects tried to make use of journalistic work to collude with a foreign country or external elements to impose sanctions or take hostile activities against Hong Kong and China."
Lee added: "If anybody's act causes damage to the reputation of journalistic work as a whole because they are involved in a conspiracy, then it is only to the good and credibility of Hong Kong journalistic work that action is taken against the criminals."
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing said the "red line" on what could be illegal under the national security law has almost disappeared as it is based on the official's subjective judgment.
"Once authorities think an organization is not a media organization, the articles published by it would no longer be considered news reporting but viewed as something with other purposes," Yeung said.
He said news outlets may be in trouble now with their articles published before the national security law, despite officials saying the law was not retrospective.
Seven other press unions - including the Hong Kong Press Photographers Association and Next Media Trade Union - issued a joint statement, saying the raid was "shocking" and that the national security law was being used as a weapon to blatantly target reports and articles, or even journalists and the management of media outlets.
Baptist University's senior lecturer for journalism Bruce Lui Ping-kuen said news organizations might become extra cautious when interviewing dissidents who have fled to foreign countries, citing that some of them have already ceased to interview them.
"The red line will be changed according to the environment, especially when it comes to political matters," he said.
Barrister Stephen Char Shik-ngor wondered whether the law has a retrospective effect as police said some of the articles seized were from 2019.
He said countries adopting the common law would usually be more prudent when issuing search warrants against news organizations due to the impact on press freedom.
Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung believed that journalists would not be arrested solely for being Apple Daily employees.
But, he added, if there is any evidence that the journalist had knowingly written or published pieces which endanger national security since July 1, they may have to bear criminal liability.