Hundreds of Hong Kong National Security Police have raided the office of online pro-democracy media outlet Stand News and arrested six people, including senior staff, for “conspiracy to publish incendiary publications”, in the latest crackdown on the independent press in the area.
The arrests took place early Wednesday, police said, and searches were conducted at the journalists’ homes.
The raid further raises concerns about freedom of expression and that of the media in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise of protecting a wide range of individual rights.
Police said in a statement that the police were conducting a search warrant with a warrant authorizing it to “search and seize relevant journalistic material”.
“More than 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers were deployed during the operation. The search is underway,” the statement said. Video of the scene showed the police removing boxes.
Sedition is not a crime under the sweeping national security law imposed on the city by Beijing in June 2020. But recent court rulings have given authorities the freedom to use the powers granted by the new legislation to enact previously scarcely used colonial-era laws, including the Crime Ordinance that covers sedition.
Hong Kong broadcaster TVB said the six arrested were from pro-democracy news website Stand News and included former board members Margaret Ng, a former Democratic legislator, and Denise Ho, a pop singer, as well as acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam.
Ng and Ho, along with all five other executives, had resigned from their positions in June after Apple Daily, the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close following a national security police raid and the arrest of its leaders.
According to a Reuters reporter on the scene, the Stand News office in an industrial building in the Kwun Tong workers’ district was partially shut down by dozens of police officers. A police media liaison officer on the 14th floor said access to the office would not be allowed given an “operation in progress”. He declined to give further details.
Police said in a statement they had arrested three men and three women between the ages of 34 and 73 “for conspiracy to publish incendiary publications,” a crime punishable by up to two years in prison under a local rule. laws of the city.
Stand News said one of those arrested was Ronson Chan, the deputy editor of the assignment and also the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. He had been a critic of the government’s proposals for new legislation to tackle the fake news law. The news site posted a video of the police arriving at Chan’s residence and showing their court order.
“The charge was conspiracy to publish incendiary publications. This is the court order and this is my warrant card. Your phone is interfering with our work,” said an officer.
The raid sent shockwaves through Hong Kong.
“Excessive. After the fall of the Apple Daily, StandNewsHK is the largest pro-democracy media in HK protecting our press freedom. It is clear that Beijing is not stopping the political cleansing. Beijing is wiping out all opposition space,” the pro-tweeted Democratic activist in exile Sunny Cheung Wednesday.
StandNews is nominated for the “independent” award at the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom awards in Nov. Founded in 2014, the non-profit outlet was known for its pro-democracy leanings.
The outlet was criticized earlier this month by Hong Kong’s security chief for “biased” reporting in an article about the city’s new smart prison system.
Cedric Alviani, head of RSF’s East Asia Bureau, said the raids and arrests were “absolutely an attack on press freedom”.
“With Stand News, one can clearly see that the aim of the Hong Kong executive is to get rid of any media that does not support the official story in order to reduce Hong Kong to the level of repression and censorship equivalent to the mainland from China,” he said.
“If you arrest a team of journalists at a media outlet with a reputation for independence, no one can say it’s for any other purpose than to try and muzzle the media and try to control the narrative in the territory.”
In June, hundreds of police officers raided the premises of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and arrested executives for alleged “conspiracy with a foreign country”. The newspaper then closed.
The arrests and raids are the latest development in what rights and press groups are calling a shrinking space for press freedom in Hong Kong. The HKJA warned that press freedom in Hong Kong was at an all-time low in July.
A survey conducted last month by the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club found that nearly half of the 100 reporters surveyed had made plans or were considering leaving, with 91% expressing concern about a fake news law. Authorities have maintained that the city’s press freedom is intact.
The raids come 18 months after the national security law was enacted, criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
As a result, political opposition has been largely crushed, pro-democracy newspapers have been forced to close or self-censorship, political and interest groups have disbanded. Thousands of residents have fled abroad.
Last week, sculptures and other works of art supporting democracy and commemorating the victims of China’s crackdown on democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 were removed from universities in Hong Kong.