HONG KONG – Hundreds of Hong Kong police arrested six senior or former members of a pro-democracy news website and raided the site’s headquarters on Wednesday, as part of a further government crackdown on the the city’s once-vibrant independent press.
The six men were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material, according to a police statement, which did not specify the media. But Stand News, a seven-year-old online publication, posted a brief video clip to Facebook showing police officers at the gates of one of its assistant editors, Ronson Chan, around 6 a.m. Officers then asked Mr. Chan to stop filming, claiming he was interfering with their work.
More than 200 officers entered the publication’s headquarters in Hong Kong and carried out a search, police said. Images and photos examined by the New York Times showed officers threading orange duct tape in a hallway inside the office building, and apparently pulling out suitcases and boxes containing computers and equipment. ‘other documents from the newsroom. One photo showed at least two dozen large blue plastic boxes stacked in the lobby of the building.
Separate footage showed Stand News interim editor-in-chief Patrick Lam escorted away from his home in handcuffs. A woman asked Mr. Lam if he had anything to say, to which he and an agent replied, “Look online. ”
Denise Ho, a popular local singer who had served on the news site’s board of directors, was also arrested, according to a post on her Facebook page.
Hong Kong officials have targeted criticism from civil society, including the media, since the Chinese Communist Party imposed a national security law on the city in June 2020 to quell months of fierce pro-Hong Kong protests. democracy in 2019.
Earlier this year, Apple Daily, perhaps the city’s best-known pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to shut down after several raids on its newsroom and the arrests of several editors and its founder , Jimmy Lai.
On Tuesday, Mr. Lai was indicted on a new newspaper-related sedition charge, along with six other former senior officials. Mr Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition voices, had already been sentenced to 20 months in prison for his support of the pro-democracy movement, and he faces life in prison for others charges.
Officials have sent warning letters to foreign news outlets over coverage they don’t like, and several foreign journalists have been denied visas to work in the former British colony. The government has also announced its intention to enact a law against fake news.
After the shutdown of Apple Daily, Stand News has become one of the city’s last openly pro-democracy media outlets, and officials have made it clear that it could be the next target.
During the 2019 protests, Stand News reporters documented episodes, including a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters at a metro station; a journalist, Gwyneth Ho, was herself assaulted. (Ms Ho, who later resigned to enter politics, is now in jail.) In June of this year, Stand News said it had removed online comments posted in or before May, noting that Hong Kong was starting to target “crimes of expression”.
Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang earlier this month accused the news site of “biased, slanderous and demonizing” information about conditions in a city jail. Lau Siu-Kai, a Beijing adviser, was even more blunt, telling Chinese state media that the “survival room” for opposition news outlets was shrinking.
“Stand News will end,” Mr. Lau said.
It was not immediately clear whether the outlet would face charges under national security law, which may result in life imprisonment. The charge of sedition does not fall under security law, but rather stems from a colonial-era ordinance. But the arrests were carried out by the national security police, and the search warrant for the newsroom was issued under the security law, police said.
Legal experts said the arrests showed authorities were blurring the lines between the Security Act and other criminal laws in Hong Kong, essentially allowing more general provisions of the Security Act, such as conditions of release. more stringent bail, to be used in more cases.
The national security police department could “expand its authority to cover all kinds of non-NSL cases,” Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, wrote on Twitter, using an acronym for National Security Act.
Mr. Chan, the editor-in-chief of Stand News whose home was raided on Wednesday, was not among the six people arrested. He was released after questioning and told reporters that police seized his laptop, phone and iPad, as well as bank documents and press credentials.
“Stand News has always done professional reporting,” Chan said. “It’s obvious for the whole world to see.”
Mr. Chan also heads the Hong Kong Journalists Association, a professional organization of around 500 local journalists that has come under intense scrutiny.
Mr. Tang, the security secretary, accused the association in September of “infiltrating” campuses and recruiting lay student journalists; he also suggested that he had received foreign funding. The security law criminalizes collusion with foreign forces.
“We are aware of what the Hong Kong Journalists Association means for the media industry and for Hong Kong society, so we will not easily dissolve ourselves,” he said. “We will do our best to discharge our duty until the last moment.”
In a statement released on Wednesday, the association said it was “deeply concerned that police have repeatedly arrested senior media officials and searched news agency offices containing large amounts of journalistic material in within a year “.
Hong Kong officials have denied any crackdown on press freedom. In an appearance at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club in September, Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, said Stand News was proof that free speech was intact.
“Freedom of speech is still very much alive,” she said. “Hong Kong Stand News, all of these websites are still working as usual.”
Joy Dong contributed research.