WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday (Dec 29) led international condemnation of the latest closure of a pro-democracy media outlet in Hong Kong, saying it undermined the reputation of the financial hub.
"By silencing independent media, PRC and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability," Mr Blinken said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. "A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press."
Police in Hong Kong, where Beijing has been ramping up control, on Wednesday burst into the offices of Stand News, seizing phones, computers and documents and taking away its editor-in-chief. Stand News later said it was immediately ceasing operations.
"Journalism is not sedition," Mr Blinken said. "We call on PRC and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s free and independent media and to immediately release those journalists and media executives who have been unjustly detained and charged."
Hong Kong has long served both as a key financial hub and a regional centre for international media, but China’s growing clampdown has sent a chill.
China imposed a security law following massive and sometimes violent protests against encroachments by Beijing, which had promised to allow a separate system when Britain returned the colony to the mainland in 1997.
In June, authorities shut down another critical outlet, Apple Daily, after its assets were seized under the national security law.
The latest arrests were under a British colonial-era law for "conspiracy to publish seditious publication," with police accusing Stand News of articles and blog posts that incited hatred toward the Hong Kong government.
Among those arrested were the editor-in-chief Patrick Lam and Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho, a board member who resigned in June.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly also denounced the arrests including of Ms Ho, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Canada.
"We are deeply concerned by the arrests in Hong Kong of current and former board and staff members from Stand News, including Canadian citizen and activist Denise Ho," Ms Joly said.
European Union spokesman Peter Stano earlier wrote on Twitter that the raid and arrests marked "a further deterioration in #PressFreedom" in the city.
The Society of Professional Journalists, a US group that promotes free expression and ethical standards, voiced solidarity with Stand News.
"SPJ stands with our brave colleagues in Hong Kong who continue to believe in the right of news organisations to be free from government control,” said Mr Dan Kubiske, co-chair of the group’s international community.
The United States has already imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leaders and curtailed the territory’s separate status in US regulations in hopes of changing Beijing’s behaviour.
China’s crackdown in Hong Kong is one of a number of issues that has drawn fierce US criticism and fuelled tensions between the world’s largest economies.
Washington has led a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing over what it considers genocide against the mostly Muslim Uighur people.
The United States has also accused China of unfair trade policies and of endangering security through its assertive moves in the dispute-rife South China Sea and East China Sea.