A live stream posted early Wednesday morning alerted the world to another raid on a pro-democracy outlet in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong national security police, armed with a search warrant, were pressing to enter the home of Stand News reporter Ronson Chan.
Officers told Chan they were there as part of an investigation related to charges of conspiring to publish seditious material and told the reporter to stop recording.
Later in the day, authorities announced that six people had been arrested, and Stand News announced via Facebook that the news site would “immediately cease to operate.”
Chan, associate editor of assignments at Stand News and president of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, described the shutdown as a “sad day” when speaking with reporters. He also posted on Facebook: “Reluctant but need to say goodbye. Thanks again to Stand News.
Chan was not among the six staff members charged with conspiring to publish seditious publications, but he allegedly “participated in police investigations”.
When authorities entered Chan’s home, they confiscated the journalist’s computer, phone, press card and bank statements, he later told reporters.
About 200 officers also raided the newspaper’s offices, according to a government press release.
Steve Li, head of the police’s national security department, told reporters that Stand News had published information and comments inciting hatred against authorities, Reuters reported.
Li said police seized assets worth 61 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.82 million) and did not rule out further arrests. “We don’t target journalists. We target national security offenses,” Li said.
Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee said he supported the authorities’ efforts.
“Anyone who tries to use the work of the media as a tool to pursue his political goal or other interests against the law, especially offenses that endanger national security, is the evil element that undermines the freedom of the press,” Lee said.
Founded in 2014, Stand News was shortlisted for the Reporters Without Borders Independence Award this year. The media watchdog cited the news outlet’s reporting of “crucial political and social developments in the territory, and … in-depth coverage of government policy and all national security law-related lawsuits.”
During anti-government protests in the city in 2019, several of its reporters were injured, including journalist-turned-activist Gwyneth Ho. She was one of 47 people charged with subversion under the national security law in February.
More recently, the news site has come under pressure, including from pro-Beijing state media, who have alleged that its reporting incites terrorism.
In June, Stand News announced that it had voluntarily removed certain comments, opinions, blogs and reader contributions. Meanwhile, six board members have resigned, including former Stand News board member Denise Ho, lawmaker Margaret Ng and Tat-chi Chow, who were among six people arrested on Wednesday.
The other three detained were editor Patrick Lam, former editor Chung Pui-Kuen and former board member Christine Fang.
Hours before the raids, editor Chan spoke at the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s annual dinner about the challenges facing the city’s media.
The HKJA said in a statement that it was closely following the case against its chairman and Stand News.
“[HKJA] Is deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested prominent members of the media and raided the offices of news outlets containing large amounts of journalistic material in the space of a year. HKJA urges the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law,” the association said.
The raids and impending closure of Stand News came just six months after pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was shut down. Authorities froze assets and arrested several executives of the outlet, including founder Jimmy Lai, under national security law.
Alvin Chan, a freelance journalist for Stand News who had worked at Apple Daily, told VOA the situation was a “nightmare”.
“Actually the fear is not the emotion, maybe the anger. Again, we did nothing wrong, and I think the Stand News reporters did nothing wrong no more,” said Alvin Chan.
“Authorities seem to have a dramatic storyline, what happened in 2019 was instigated by the media, including Apple Daily and Stand News,” Alvin Chan said, referring to mass protests that year.
Unlike Apple Daily, those arrested at Stand News are charged with sedition rather than crimes under the National Security Act.
However, recent court rulings have allowed authorities to use powers under the National Security Act to roll out rarely used colonial-era laws covering sedition, Reuters reported.
The United Nations, rights groups and journalists’ organizations criticized Wednesday’s raid, saying it would hurt Hong Kong’s press freedom record.
The UN human rights office said it was “alarmed by the continued crackdown on civic space” in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong has a legal obligation to respect the rights to freedom of information, expression and association, as well as to ensure due process,” he said in a statement to Reuters. “We are seeing an extremely rapid closing of civic space and outlets for civil society in Hong Kong to speak and express themselves freely.”
Hong Kong Watch, a watchdog group in Britain, described the arrests as “nothing short of an all-out assault on press freedom in Hong Kong”. And the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club said that while it did not comment on the legality of the actions, “[they] are another blow to press freedom in Hong Kong and will continue to chill the city’s media environment after a difficult year for the city’s news outlets.
Concerns about Hong Kong’s media environment have been raised since Beijing imposed the national security law in June 2020.
In an interview with VOA this month, Ronson Chan said “red lines” for the Hong Kong media had made 2021 “the saddest year”.
“We can never go back – Hong Kong has changed,” he said, predicting the situation would get worse. “Next year will not be easy. We still have a very critical situation.
Some information for this article comes from Reuters.