Hong Kong pro-democracy media outlet Stand News said Wednesday; it will close after a police raid and arrests of seven current and former staff members, in the latest blow to the city’s rapidly-shrinking press freedoms.
Suppression of the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s local press has increased in the wake of 2019’s huge and often violent democracy protests and Beijing’s subsequent imposition of a sweeping national security law.
Stand News said in a statement posted on Facebook that its website and social media will no longer be updated and will be taken down soon. It added that acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam; who was earlier arrested, had resigned and all employees have been terminated.
“Because of the current situation, Stand News will stop operating immediately,” the outlet said in a statement.
Steve Li, senior superintendent of the national security police; accused the media outlet of publishing articles that incited hatred towards the Hong Kong government between July 2020 and November 2021; which included news reports and blog posts.
“They described Hong Kong protesters as ‘being disappeared’ and ‘violated’… These are malicious allegations without any factual basis,” Li told a press conference.
The seven individuals were arrested under a British colonial-era law for “conspiracy to publish seditious publication”.
Around lunchtime on Wednesday, national security police could be seen hauling boxes from Stand News’ office.
Li said they seized computers, phones, documents and HK$500,000 ($64,100) in cash.
The national security unit froze about HK$61 million ($7.8 mn) worth of assets from the media outlet; one of the largest sums it has ever frozen, Li said.
More than 200 officers were deployed to search the outlet’s newsroom with court authorisation to seize journalistic materials, police said.
An AFP reporter saw Stand News’ Lam being led handcuffed into the office after his arrest.
Police also arrested former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen; as well as four board members who resigned in June, according to local media.
Li would not rule out further arrests, and said some individuals not in Hong Kong had been put on a wanted list.
Announcing its closure, Stand News thanked its readers, saying it was established as a non-profit in December 2014; to “take a stand in Hong Kong”.
“Stand News was editorially independent, and was dedicated to protecting Hong Kong’s core values such as democracy, human rights, freedom; rule of law and justice,” the outlet said.
The Committee to Protect Journalists described the raid; as “an open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom” and called for charges to be dropped.
Stand News is the second Hong Kong media company targeted by the authorities after Apple Daily; which shut down in June after its assets were frozen under the national security law.
Li denied that police were targeting reporters and the media; saying that news outlets will not face the law in Hong Kong if their journalists write “unbiased” reports.
Shortly before dawn, Stand News broadcast live on Facebook that national security police were outside the door of deputy assignment editor Ronson Chan; who had several devices confiscated but was not arrested.
The former Stand News board members arrested Wednesday; are Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho, barrister Margaret Ng, Christine Fang and Chow Tat-chi, according to local media reports.
Li confirmed to AFP that, in addition to the arrests, police visited and searched the homes of four people connected to Stand News.
During the 2019 democracy protests, police clashed with several of the outlet’s reporters while one journalist — known for her Facebook live broadcasts; — captured footage of a mob attack at a train station, continuing the feed even as the assailants turned on her.
Hong Kong has long served as a regional media hub; though it has tumbled down press freedom rankings in recent years as Beijing asserts greater control over the city.
Following reports of Wednesday’s raid, Taiwan’s ruling party accused Beijing of destroying Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Foreign Correspondents’ Club; — representing local and international media workers respectively — both said they were “deeply concerned” by the arrests and called for press freedom to be respected.
Meanwhile, exiled activist Nathan Law tweeted that; the arrests illustrated the persecution of journalists and media that “dare to challenge them and speak the truth”.