HONG KONG - The last prominent anti-government and pro-democracy online media outfit in Hong Kong has shuttered, with six people linked to The Stand News, including pop star and activist Denise Ho, arrested for sedition.
Police also nabbed a former Apple Daily staff for the same offence in a day of raids on Wednesday (Dec 29).
The seven people are accused of conspiracy to publish seditious publications under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance, which carries a maximum penalty of two years’ jail and a HK$5,000 (S$868) fine.
The six linked to The Stand News - three men and three women aged 34 to 73 - are current and former directors, as well as senior staff.
They include acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam Shiu Tung and former chief editor Chung Pui Kuen, who stepped down last month.
Ex-lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi Yee, singer and activist Denise Ho, Mr Chow Tat Chi and Ms Christine Fang Meng Sang were former board members who stepped down in November.
Mr Chung’s wife Chan Pui Man, a former associate publisher of the now-defunct tabloid Apple Daily, was also arrested. She allegedly played a role in the publishing of seditious content on Stand News.
TVB, citing a source, reported that a warrant of arrest has been issued to an eighth person, said to be the founder of Stand News Tony Tsoi.
In a statement early Wednesday, the police, without naming anyone, said the national security department conducted a search on an online media company in Kwun Tong for relevant journalistic materials.
At a police briefing later, senior superintendent of the national security department Steve Li Kwai Wah said Stand News published seditious articles from July 2020 to November 2021, which incited hatred of the government.
There were articles that “brazenly” talked about how a group was trying to persuade foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong and mainland officials.
In another article, an interviewee was quoted as saying “only when having two countries, you can have two systems”. This reeks of Hong Kong independence, said Mr Li.
Reports also mentioned that in the 2019 unrest, protesters “disappeared” or were sexually assaulted, which were false, he noted.
Mr Li said the police seized HK$61 million (S$10.6 million) worth of Stand News assets.
Hours after the raid, the digital news outfit announced its closure on Facebook, adding that Mr Lam has resigned, all employees terminated, and content on its website and social media will be removed.
Chief Secretary for Administration John Lee said: “Anybody who attempts to make use of media work as a tool to pursue political purpose or other interests contravenes the law, particularly offences that endanger national security. They are the evil elements that damage press freedom.”
Professional media workers should recognise that these are the bad apples in the industry “and stand far from them”, he added.
When asked about this, Mr Li said: “We are not targeting the reporter. We are not targeting the media. We are just targeting the national security law offences.”
Separately, The Stand News’ deputy assignment editor Ronson Chan, who is also chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was hauled in to help with investigations, though he was not arrested.
The HKJA expressed deep concern that “the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organisations containing large quantities of journalistic materials within a year”.
It urged the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club said the actions are a further blow to press freedom in Hong Kong and will continue to chill the media environment following a difficult year for the city’s news outlets.
Sedition is not an offence under the city’s national security law introduced by Beijing in June 2020. But recent court judgements have given authorities the room to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy previously sparsely-used colonial-era laws, including the Crime Ordinance which covers sedition.
The security law was rolled out after the 2019 oft-violent unrest and officials say it has restored order and peace in the city. They said the law does not curb rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Law, which is Hong Kong’s mini Constitution.
But critics and the opposition have said that the law is used to silence dissent.
Fugitive Nathan Law, who is wanted for allegedly breaching the security law by colluding with foreign forces, among other offences, wrote on his Twitter that the Chinese Communist Party has been “charging journalists and media that dare to challenge them and speak the truth”.
The activist, who is in exile in Britain, urged for the release of the six people linked to The Stand News. He is actively lobbying foreign governments to back the city’s pro-democracy movement.
Wednesday’s arrests come half a year after 500 officers in June raided the now-defunct Apple Daily’s office, where several executives and staff were accused of collusion with foreign forces. The anti-government newspaper folded the same month.
The arrests also come a day after founder of Apple Daily Jimmy Lai and six of his former employees were charged with conspiracy to produce and distribute seditious publications.
The 74-year-old tycoon, who is now in jail and faces national security charges such as collusion with foreign forces, is among the most prominent people to be linked to authorities’ crackdown on the opposition.