4 min read.Updated: 29 Dec 2021, 09:09 PM ISTNatasha Khan, The Wall Street Journal
National security police detained seven people linked to popular news site, dealing another blow to press freedom in the city
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HONG KONG :
National security police in Hong Kong arrested seven people linked to the popular pro-democracy news site Stand News, prompting it to shut down and dealing a further blow to freedom of speech in a city once celebrated for its rambunctious journalism.
The city’s National Security Department said Wednesday that the arrests were for conspiracy to publish seditious content, an offense under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance. The offense is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of 5,000 Hong Kong dollars, equivalent to $641.
Stand News said after the arrests and police raid that it would stop operations, with its acting editor resigning and all employees immediately dismissed.
The arrests mark another assault on press freedom in the city. After Beijing imposed national security legislation on the city in June last year, local media came under scrutiny. Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily printed its last edition after 26 years in June this year following the arrest of senior journalists and leaders, including founder Jimmy Lai.
Senior Superintendent of the National Security Department Li Kwai-wah told reporters after the Stand News arrests that the news site continued to publish seditious content from July 2020 to November 2021, after the national security law came into effect. Mr. Li raised a few examples, including that the news site described Hong Kong protesters as having disappeared and reported that police were pointing guns at the yellow helmets protesters were wearing during clashes and saying “burn them all." Mr. Li said such articles were published with the intent to provoke hatred against the government and dissatisfaction among the community.
Mr. Li said police found HK$500,000 in cash at Stand News offices and had frozen about HK$61 million worth of its assets. Police are investigating the source of the funds, he said.
Holding a copy of the national security law and referring to the protection of media freedom that the legislation stipulates, Mr. Li said authorities weren’t targeting any profession, but instead anyone who broke the law.
News of the arrests emerged in a 45-second live broadcast by deputy assignment editor Ronson Chan, who is also head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. Mr. Chan began streaming on Stand News’ Facebook page as national security police showed up at his door early Wednesday, before he was told to stop filming by the officers. Mr. Chan was subsequently released.
Since it launched in late 2014 as a nonprofit successor to pro-democracy media outlet House News—after a 79-day pro-democracy sit-in on city streets was cleared—Stand News has emerged as one of the city’s boldest independent news organizations, with a focus on local politics. During the 2019 protests, its reporters and live streams were among the most watched, following protesters and documenting their clashes with police during incidents across the city.
It ranked highest in credibility among the city’s online news media in a 2019 Chinese University of Hong Kong survey.
After the fall of Apple Daily in June, Stand News said it would stop running opinion pieces—purging past articles from its website—and cease accepting subscriptions and sponsorships as a precaution.
Those arrested Wednesday include former top editor Chung Pui-kuen, who stepped down from his post in November citing family reasons. His wife, former Apple Daily associate publisher Chan Pui-man, was among the group arrested in June.
On Wednesday, police also arrested several former Stand News board members who had stepped down earlier this year when the company began taking precautions to minimize its risk and protect staff. Among the group was singer Denise Ho, whose 6 a.m. arrest was confirmed by administrators of her verified Facebook page, and barrister and former lawmaker Margaret Ng. The site’s acting top editor, Patrick Lam, was also arrested.
Mr. Chung and Ms. Ng couldn’t be reached for comment. The message on Ms. Ho’s Facebook page said she was OK and urged supporters not to worry.
Hong Kong’s police force said Wednesday that it obtained a warrant under the national security law to search the news site’s offices in the industrial Kwun Tong district and seize journalistic materials. The department said it deployed 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers during the operation. Local media broadcast footage of them removing dozens of boxes from the building housing the Stand News office.
“The arrests…amount to an open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom," said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Authorities must release [them] and drop all charges against them immediately if Hong Kong is to retain any semblance of the freedoms that its residents enjoyed only a few years ago."
The CPJ said that this year marked the first since records began in 1992 that journalists in Hong Kong were imprisoned for their work. Its 2021 prison census showed that China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row.
The arrests come a day after courts added a charge of conspiracy to produce and distribute seditious publications against Mr. Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, and six of his former staff, while they await their national security trial. Lawyers for Mr. Lai couldn’t be immediately reached.
The offense of sedition in Hong Kong falls under the Crimes Ordinance, which was last amended in 1972, when the city was still a British colony. It defines a seditious intention as an effort “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of Her Majesty," or the government of Hong Kong. The city still follows the common law and has a different legal system than the mainland.
In June, after Apple Daily published its final edition and its executives were arrested and assets frozen, U.S. president Joe Biden issued a statement criticizing Beijing for targeting independent press and detaining media workers. “Journalists are truth-tellers who hold leaders accountable and keep information flowing freely," he said. “That is needed now more than ever in Hong Kong, and in places around the world where democracy is under threat."