Hundreds of Hong Kong national security police raided the office of online pro-democracy media outlet Stand News on Wednesday and arrested six people for suspected “seditious publications” offences, the latest in a series of crackdowns on the media.
Stand News, set up in 2014 as a non-profit, is the most prominent remaining pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily tabloid.
The raid raises more concerns about press freedom in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that a wide range of individual rights would be protected, media advocacy groups said.
Police said in a statement they had a warrant authorising them to “seize relevant journalistic materials”.
“Over 200 uniformed and plain clothes police officers have been deployed,” police said.
Police also said they had arrested three men and three women, aged 34-73, for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”. Police did not identify them.
Media said the six arrested were former Stand News board members: former democratic legislator Margaret Ng, pop singer Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang. Also arrested were former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and acting chief editor Patrick Lam.
Ronson Chan, Stand News deputy assignment editor and the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was not among those arrested but said police confiscated his computer, mobile, tablet, press pass and bank records during an early morning search of his home.
“Stand News has always reported news professionally,” Chan told reporters.
Authorities have repeatedly said all prosecutions are based on evidence and had nothing to do with the profession of the people arrested.
Early on Wednesday, scores of police were seen milling about the Stand News office in an industrial building.
Officers loaded about three dozen boxes of documents and other seized material onto a truck before leaving around mid-day. Reporters from other media were not allowed into the newsroom after the raid.
Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the police action was an “open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom”.
Sedition is not among the offences listed under a sweeping 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 judgements have freed authorities to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy previously rarely used colonial era laws covering sedition.
Authorities say the security law has restored order after often-violent pro-democracy unrest in 2019. Critics say the legislation is a tool to quash dissent and has set the global financial hub on an authoritarian path.
In June, hundreds of police raided the Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged “collusion with a foreign country”. The newspaper shut down after police froze its assets.
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed an additional “seditious publications” charge against Lai and six other former Apple Daily staff.
Police had not disclosed which Apple Daily or Stand News articles they considered seditious.
The Stand News charter states that it shall be independent and committed to safeguarding core values of “democracy, human rights, rule of law and justice”.
After the Apple Daily raid, Stand News said it would stop accepting donations from readers and had taken down commentaries from its platform to protect supporters, authors and editorial staff, adding that “speech crimes” had come to Hong Kong.
In May, pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao criticised Stand News for an article comparing the Hong Kong protests with Northern Ireland’s conflict, saying it incited terrorism. The Stand News article was taken down.
Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily quoted in November Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official think tank, saying “Stand News will come to an end” as “the survival room” for anti-government outlets was shrinking.
Earlier this year, the government has also embarked on a major overhaul of public broadcaster RTHK and rejected the visa renewal of a foreign journalist. Authorities have said they are considering “fake news” legislation.
The HKJA said in a statement it was “deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organizations containing large quantities of journalistic materials”.