Japan, Britain and 19 other countries released a statement Friday criticizing recent actions taken against Hong Kong media, while saying they are "highly concerned" that new legislation in the territory could further tighten controls over mass media so as to curtail criticism of the government.

"We are highly concerned by the possible introduction of new legislation that is intended or could risk being used to eliminate scrutiny and criticism by the media of the government's policies and actions," read the statement released through the Media Freedom Coalition.

It also said the countries "express their strong concerns" about the recent forced closure of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong and the arrest of its staff by local authorities, a move it noted "comes against a backdrop of increased media censorship" in the territory.

People stand in line at a newsstand in Hong Kong to buy pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily's final print edition in the early hours of June 24, 2021. (Kyodo)

"The use of the National Security Law to suppress journalism is a serious and negative step, which undermines Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy and the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong," it added, referring to a new law introduced last year by China to crack down on what Beijing views as subversive activity.

Asserting that freedom of the press has been central to Hong Kong's success, the countries said, "Hong Kong and mainland Chinese authorities should fully respect and uphold this important right, in line with China's international legal obligations."

Under China's "one country, two systems" policy, the former British colony was promised it would enjoy the rights and freedoms of a semiautonomous region for 50 years following its return to the mainland in 1997.

Also among the 21 countries signing the statement were Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.