HONG KONG/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. President Joe Biden on Thursday called the closure of Hong Kong's Apple Daily tabloid a "sad day for media freedom" and said it signaled "intensifying repression" by China, while vowing to maintain support for the people of the Chinese-ruled territory.
In a statement following the news outlet's closure earlier on Thursday, Biden called on Beijing to stop targeting the independent press and release detained journalists and media executives.
"People in Hong Kong have the right to freedom of the press. Instead, Beijing is denying basic liberties and assaulting Hong Kong's autonomy and democratic institutions and processes, inconsistent with its international obligations," he said.
Apple Daily was forced to end a 26-year run amid a national security crackdown that froze the company's funds. Its closure prompted snaking lines of hundreds of loyal readers at newsstands across the city.
"It is a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world," Biden said, adding that the publication had been "a much-needed bastion of independent journalism in Hong Kong."
"Through arrests, threats, and forcing through a National Security Law that penalizes free speech, Beijing has insisted on wielding its power to suppress independent media and silence dissenting views," he said.
Biden vowed that the U.S. "will not waver in our support of people in Hong Kong and all those who stand up for the basic freedoms all people deserve."
The shutdown deals the most serious blow yet to Hong Kong's media freedoms and could potentially destroy the city's reputation as a media hub after Beijing imposed the security law on the financial center last year, media advocacy groups say.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet took aim on Thursday at the "negative consequences" she said Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai faced for exercising his rights, criticizing the tycoon's detention.
Speaking to the 2021 Society of Publishers in Asia press awards ceremony held in Hong Kong, Bachelet said the national security law was leading journalists to "self-censor" to avoid clashing with "vaguely formulated offenses."
Lai has been in jail since December over unauthorized rallies during Hong Kong's mass pro-democracy protests in 2019. He is facing three national security charges, including colluding with a foreign country and is already serving several sentences for taking part in unauthorized rallies.
Britain's foreign minister Dominic Raab called on China to respect its commitments to free media under an agreement with Britain over how Hong Kong would be ruled after its return from British rule to China in 1997.
"We certainly view what's been happening in with the closure of the Apple Daily and the arrest of journalists very, very seriously," he said. "We call on China to respect the terms that it freely signed up to and we think that's a matter of trust as well as important for the people of Hong Kong."