In the latest crackdown on independent news media in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, Hong Kong police on Wednesday raided the office of pro-democracy news website Stand News, and arrested seven current and former staff members on suspicion of “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”.
“Because of the situation, Stand News is now stopping operations,” the website’s operators wrote in a Facebook post. “Acting editor in chief, Patrick Lam, has resigned and all Stand News employees are dismissed.”
Since the imposition of the controversial new national security law in the city, critics of the Chinese Communist Party, including news media outlets, have been targeted by Hong Kong officials. In fact, Stand News was one of the last pro-democracy news outlets in the city, after the popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to shut shop earlier this year.
So, what happened at the Stand News headquarters on Wednesday?
On Wednesday morning, over 200 national security officials entered the head office of the publication and conducted a search, police officials told AP. Police said that they were authorised to “search and seize relevant journalistic materials”.
“This morning, the police arrested a number of senior and former senior staff of the company, and took many people away to assist in the investigation,” a post on Stand News’ official Facebook profile read. Computers and documents were seized during the raid, the company added.
Earlier in the day, the website also shared video footage of police officials outside the home of one of its deputy editors, Ronson Chan.
A total of six people — including the former and acting chief editors of Stand News, Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam, and pop star-turned-activist and board member Denise Ho — were arrested. Other board members Margaret Ng, Christine Fang and Chow Tat-chi were also arrested. Chan was spared from arrest but was taken in for questioning.
During a press conference later in the day, Chief Secretary of police John Lee said that he supported the police action against the publication, adding that there would be “zero tolerance of behaviour that threatens national security”, BBC reported.
“Making use of media work as a tool to pursue their political purpose or other interests contravenes the law, particularly offences that endanger national security,” he went on to say. “They are the evil elements that damage press freedom.”
What do we know about Stand News?
Founded in 2014, Stand News was an independent news website known for its predominantly pro-democracy stance and its scathing critique of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The publication was the only Hong Kong-based media outlet to work with a global consortium of news organisations, including The Indian Express, which released a series of reports on the Pandora Papers earlier this year.
Over the years, Stand News has repeatedly been targeted by Hong Kong authorities, and a lot of its content has been flagged.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong’s security secretary, Chris Tang, accused the website of publishing “biased, smearing and demonizing” reports about the conditions at a prison in the city, The New York Times reported. Meanwhile Lau Siu-kai, an adviser to Beijing, was quite upfront about the administration’s deep distrust of the organisation: “Stand News will come to an end,” he once said.
Why are Hong Kong officials clamping down on independent media?
Under the draconian national security law in Hong Kong, journalists have been arrested and media outlets — much like Stand News — have been forced to lower their shutters. The new law has choked Hong Kong’s once politically diverse news landscape, which was markedly different from the CCP-controlled news media in mainland China.
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The national security law, imposed in June last year after months of anti-government protests, focuses on the four crimes of terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. While it does not explicitly mention the media, legal experts say that the vague manner in which it is written has implications for journalists and news outlets.
Sedition is not a crime under the new security regime. But the new legislation allows authorities to deploy colonial-era laws, such as the Crime Ordinance, which covers sedition.