© Reuters. PHOTOGRAPHY: General view of the central financial district during sunset, in Hong Kong, China, March 11, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
Edmond Ng and James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy media Stand News closed on Wednesday after police raided his office, froze his property and arrested senior staff on suspicion of committing “rebellious publishing” in the latest showdown with city media.
Police action caused the conviction of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists and UN Office for Human Rights in Geneva, who said it was upset because of “extremely fast closure of the civil space and the exit for civil society in Hong Kong to freely speak and express”.
Founded in 2014 as a non-profit organization, Stand News was the most prominent pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led to the closure of the tabloid Apple (NASDAQ 🙂 imprisoned tycoon Jimmy Lai.
The incursion raises greater concerns about media freedom in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997, with a promise that a wide range of individual rights would be protected.
“Stand News is now shutting down,” the post posted on Facebook (NASDAQ :), adding that all employees have been fired.
Steve Lee, head of the police department for national security, told reporters that Stand News had published news and comments that incited hatred against the government.
He said some of the articles said protesters disappeared during the city’s pro-democracy riots in 2019 or were sexually harassed, which he called “factually unfounded” and “malicious”. Lee also said some articles falsely claimed that the Communist Party had expanded its powers through independent city courts or calls for foreign sanctions.
Lee did not cite accurate articles. Reuters did not independently review any article on Stand News.
Li said police seized assets worth HK $ 61 million ($ 7.82 million), as well as computers, phones and newspaper material, and did not rule out further arrests.
“We are not targeting journalists. We are targeting national security crimes,” Lee said.
Police said 200 police officers searched the Stand News office and that three men and four women, ages 34 to 73, were arrested on suspicion of “conspiring to publish rebellious publications”.
Police have not identified them, but the media say four former Stand News board members have been arrested – former Democratic MP 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-in-chief. Patrick Lam.
Chung’s wife, Chan Pui-man, who previously worked at Apple Daily, has been arrested again in prison, media reported.
Reuters could not reach the detainees or their lawyers.
Ronson Chan, deputy task editor for Stand News and leader of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA), was not among those arrested, but said police seized his computer, cell phone, tablet, press pass and bank statements during a search of his home.
“Stand News has always been professional in its coverage of the news,” Chan told reporters.
Hong Kong Secretary-General John Lee told reporters he supported the police action.
“Anyone who tries to use media work as a tool to pursue their political goals or other interests that run counter to the law, especially crimes that threaten national security, they are an evil element that violates freedom of the press,” Lee said.
Earlier on Wednesday, a number of police officers were seen loading about three dozen boxes of documents and other seized material into a truck.
The UN Office of Rights said it was “alarmed by the continued blow to civilian 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, as well as to guarantee due process,” a statement from Reuters in Geneva said.
“We are witnessing the extremely rapid closure of civil society and civil society outlets in Hong Kong to speak and express themselves freely, and we call on the authorities to ensure that further action in these cases fully respects these rights set out in the Covenant. “
Steven Butler, program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists in Asia, said the arrests were “an open attack on the already shabby freedom of the press in Hong Kong”.
The insurgency is not among the acts listed in the comprehensive national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020, which punishes terrorism, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and secession with the possible sentence of life imprisonment.
But recent court rulings have allowed authorities https://www.reuters.com/world/china/court-rulings-free-hong-kong-police-probe-older-offences-under-security-law-2021-10-19 use the powers conferred by new legislation to enforce rarely used colonial-era laws that cover rebellion.
Authorities say the security law has restored order after the often violent pro-democracy and anti-Chinese riots of 2019. Critics say the law has put the financial center on an authoritarian path by eliminating disagreements.
In June, hundreds of police officers raided the Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged “collusion with a foreign state.” The newspaper soon shut down.
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed an additional charge of “rebellious publications” against Lai and six other former Apple Daily employees.
The Stand News Charter states independence and commitment to the protection of “democracy, human rights, the rule of law and justice”.
Following the Apple Daily raid, Stand News said it would stop accepting reader donations and removed comments from its platform to protect supporters, authors and editors, adding that “speech crimes” had arrived in Hong Kong.
This year, the government also embarked on a major overhaul of the public broadcaster RTHK https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-security-media-idUSKBN2AJ09J, while authorities said they were considering a “fake news” law.
The HKJA said it was “deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested high-ranking media representatives” and searched the newsrooms.
(1 dollar = 7.7960 Hong Kong dollars)