Hong Kong publication shuts down after top executives arrested

Pro-democracy Hong Kong media Stand News shut down on Wednesday after police raided offices, frozen assets and arrested senior officials for alleged “seditious publication” offenses in the city’s latest media crackdown .

The raid raises more concerns about press freedom in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise that its freedoms, including a free press, would be protected.

The police action sparked censorship from Germany and the UN Human Rights Office, which said it was alarmed by the “extremely rapid closure of civic space and opportunities for Hong Kong civil society to speak up and speak out freely. “

Stand News, established in 2014 as a nonprofit, was the largest pro-democracy publication remaining in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led to the shutdown of the tycoon’s Apple Daily tabloid imprisoned Jimmy Lai.

“Stand News is now shutting down,” the Facebook post said, adding that all employees had been made redundant.

Sedition is not among the offenses listed in a national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020 that punishes terrorism, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and secession with possible life imprisonment.

But recent court rulings have allowed authorities to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy rarely used colonial-era laws covering sedition.

Steve Li, head of the national security police department, told reporters that Stand News had published information and comments inciting hatred against the authorities.

He said some of the reports indicated that protesters either disappeared during the pro-democracy unrest in the city in 2019 or were sexually harassed, which he called “factually baseless” and “malicious.” Mr. Li also said that some articles falsely claimed that the Communist Party extended its powers through independent city courts or called for foreign sanctions.

Mr. Li did not specify the exact articles. Reuters has not independently reviewed any Stand News article.

Mr. Li said police seized property valued at HK $ 61 million (€ 6.89 million) as well as computers, telephones and journalistic equipment, and that he did not rule out no new arrests.

“We are not targeting journalists. We are targeting national security offenses, ”Li said.

Police said 200 officers raided the Stand News office and three men and four women, aged 34 to 73, were arrested on suspicion of “conspiracy to publish seditious publications.”

Police did not identify them, but media said four former Stand News board members were arrested – former Democratic lawmaker Margaret Ng, pop singer Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang – as well as former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen and acting. editor Patrick Lam.

Chung’s wife Chan Pui-man, formerly of Apple Daily, has been re-arrested in prison, media reported.

Reuters was unable to reach those arrested or their legal representatives.

Ronson Chan, deputy editor of Stand News and head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was not among those arrested but said police confiscated his computer, cell phone, tablet , his press card and bank statements during a search of his home.

“Stand News has always reported the news in a professional manner,” Chan told reporters.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee told reporters he supported the police action.

“Anyone who attempts to use the work of the media as a tool to pursue their political objective or other interests contrary to the law, especially offenses that endanger national security, is the evil element that undermines the freedom of the press, ”said Lee.

Germany condemned the arrests.

“From our perspective, events illustrate once again that there is a constant erosion of pluralism, freedom of opinion and press freedom in Hong Kong – especially since the entry into force of this law. on national security, ”said a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. .

“From our point of view, it is very clear that critical journalism should not be placed under general suspicion,” she added.

The UN rights office said it was “alarmed by the continued crackdown on civic space” in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong… Is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has a legal obligation to respect the rights to freedom of information, expression and association, and to ensure due process He said in a statement to Reuters in Geneva.

“We are witnessing an extremely rapid closure of civic space and of opportunities for civil society in Hong Kong to speak out and express themselves freely. . . “

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the arrests were an “open attack on Hong Kong’s already ragged press freedom.”

Authorities say the National Security Law restored order after the often violent pro-democracy and anti-China unrest in 2019. Critics say the legislation put the financial center on an authoritarian path by overturning the dissent.

In June, hundreds of police raided the Apple Daily, arresting executives for “suspected collusion with a foreign country.” The newspaper closed shortly after.

On Tuesday, prosecutors filed a further “seditious publication” charge against Lai and six other former Apple Daily employees.

The Stand News charter affirmed independence and a commitment to safeguard “democracy, human rights, the rule of law and justice”.

After the Apple Daily raid, Stand News said it would stop accepting donations from readers and removed comments from its platform to protect supporters, writers and editorial staff, adding that “crimes of ‘expression “had come to Hong Kong.

This year, the government also embarked on a major overhaul of the public broadcaster RTHK, while authorities said they were considering “fake news” legislation.

The HKJA said it was “deeply concerned that police have repeatedly arrested senior media officials” and searched newsrooms. – Reuters

Jacob L. Thornton