HONG KONG (Kyodo) -- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that arresting executives of pro-democracy Apple Daily should not be seen as an infringement of press freedom, rejecting criticisms from the United States that the arrests were "politically motivated."
Speaking in a news briefing, following the newspaper's announcement the previous day that it could be forced to shut within days as the government froze its company assets, Lam said the arrests were made due to its violation of the national security law.
"What we are dealing is not about the news organization or news coverage, but an alleged act that endangered national security," Lam said, calling the criticism of authorities' actions against the newspaper from the United States "completely irrelevant."
Hong Kong authorities last week indicted two executives of Next Digital Ltd. that publishes the paper as well as three companies handling printing and internet content for the paper for allegedly colluding with foreign forces.
Banks were reportedly ordered not to handle the companies' assets.
Governments of Western countries criticized the indictment and voiced worries over the crackdowns on the paper as U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the authorities' selective use of the national security law to suppress independent media is deeply concerning.
"We've seen it used in appalling ways, including to arbitrarily target independent media organizations," Price told reporters Monday, adding the charges on the paper over its collusion with foreign forces and others are politically motivated.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Tuesday, "China firmly opposes interference by the United States in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs."
The Chinese central government "firmly supports all efforts for national security and the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong," he added.
The executives of Next Digital and the three companies were indicted for conspiring with Jimmy Lai, founder of the media group, and others in asking a foreign country to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland China.
Lai is also charged with colluding with foreign forces, a crime punishable by life imprisonment under the national security law. He is serving a prison sentence for taking part in unauthorized assemblies.
His assets in the company had also been frozen in May.
Following these crackdowns, the media group on Monday said that it will decide by Friday if the newspaper will cease operation after publishing what would be its final issue on Saturday, in a move that could symbolize the loss of freedom of press in Hong Kong.
The former British colony had been guaranteed a "high degree of autonomy" by Beijing under the principle of "one country, two systems" since it was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
But following the 2019 anti-government protests amid a growing influence of pro-democracy forces in the territory, the central government under President Xi Jinping called for Hong Kong's executive, legislative and judicial branches to be made up only of "patriots" who do not oppose the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
In June last year, Beijing imposed the national security law in Hong Kong, criminalizing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.