Police in Hong Kong on Wednesday arrested seven people linked to a major pro-democracy news website for “sedition” under a national security crackdown ordered by Beijing, and froze its assets, prompting it to shut down on the same day.
Police arrested a former chief editor of Stand News, Chung Pui-kuen, and acting chief editor Patrick Lam, as well as former pro-democracy lawmaker Margaret Ng, Cantopop star Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang, all of whom have served on the board of directors.
In an operation involving more than 200 plainclothes and uniformed police, officers also searched the home of Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) president Ronson Chan, who also worked as a senior editor at Stand News, although he wasn’t arrested.
“Police arrested a number of senior and former senior officers of the company this morning, took a number of people in to help with enquiries, and seized a number of computers and some documents from the newsroom,” Stand News said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Given the circumstances, Stand News is ceasing operations with immediate effect, with all online and social media content … to be removed within the next few days,” it said. “Acting editor in chief Lam has resigned and all staff will be laid off with immediate effect.”
“Stand News has always been committed to protecting the core Hong Kong values of freedom and democracy, human rights, justice and the rule of law,” it said. “Thank you to our readers for all of their support.”
The HKJA expressed concern over the raid.
“The Hong Kong Journalists Association expresses its deep concern over police arrests at a prominent media organization and raids of its offices, the latest of several within the past year,” it said.
“[We] call on the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law,” it said in a reference to the city’s mini-constitution which enshrines Beijing’s promises to preserve Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms.
Police said all seven arrestees were being held for “conspiracy to publish seditious publication,” a colonial-era charges under the city’s Crimes Ordinance, while Stand News’ assets were frozen under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from July 1, 2020.
“A total of three men and four women, aged 34 to 73, were arrested in the operation so far,” a police statement said. “Searches of their respective residences are under way.”
Ronson Chan said police confiscated his computer, mobile, tablet, press pass and bank records during an early morning search of his home.
The raid on Stand News came after the website and its journalists were denounced by a number of CCP-backed news organizations and high-ranking Hong Kong officials.
Secretary for Security Chris Tang, a former police chief, had taken issue with its criticism of conditions at the Tai Tam Gorge Correctional Institution, as well as “inciting hatred of the police.”
‘Already tattered press freedom’
Margaret Ng and Denise Ho have been repeatedly targeted by pro-China media after they set up the “612 Humanitarian Relief Fund” to fund bail payments for people arrested in connection with the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
The fund announced its dissolution in November 2021 in spite of receiving high levels of public donations.
“Conspiracy to publish seditious publications” carries a maximum jail term of two years for the first conviction.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the arrests, which it called “an open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom.”
“Authorities must release the six 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,” CPJ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement.
China remains the world’s worst jailer of journalists for the third year in a row, according to the CPJ.
It said 2021 marked the first time Hong Kong journalists were also imprisoned for doing their jobs, it said, in a reference to the arrests of founder Jimmy Lai and senior journalists at the now-shuttered pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily.
Lai and colleagues are currently awaiting trial on charges of “collusion with a foreign power” under the national security law after the paper called for international sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.