The Hong Kong pro-democracy media outlet Stand News has said it will shut down after police raided its offices earlier in the day and arrested senior staff on suspicion of “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”.
“Because of the situation, Stand News is now stopping operations,” the online publication said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “Acting editor in chief, Patrick Lam, has resigned and all Stand News employees are dismissed.”
Earlier, hundreds of Hong Kong national security police raided the offices of the media outlet and arrested six people, including senior staff, in the latest crackdown on independent press in the territory.
Among those arrested were prominent Hong Kong activists including the pop singer Denise Ho and the barrister Margaret Ng, both of whom previously served on the Stand News board. The arrests happened early on Wednesday, police said, and searches of the journalists’ homes were also carried out.
The raid raises further concerns about freedom of speech – especially that of the media – in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that a wide range of individual rights would be protected.
Sedition is not a crime under the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on the city in June 2020. But recent court judgments have freed authorities to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy previously sparsely used colonial era laws, including the Crime Ordinance, which covers sedition.
Police said in a statement they were conducting a search with a warrant, authorising it “to search and seize relevant journalistic materials”.
“Over 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers have been deployed during the operation. The search operation is under way,” the statement said. Video from the scene showed police taking boxes away.
Police on Wednesday confirmed they had frozen HK$61m (£6m) of Stand News’ assets, the largest amount to be frozen under the national security law.
“The success for me is to detect a national security crime under the national security law,” said police Sr Supt, Steve Li, in response to questions over whether he believed the raid was a success after Stand News’ announcement that it was shutting down.
Li said the outlet had published articles that incited hatred, saying some pieces had made unfounded accusations that recent protest convictions had been an abuse of power by the city’s courts. He also listed examples where the outlet conducted interviews with people who advocated for Hong Kong independence.
He said the police were also investigating why Stand News had set up a UK bureau earlier this year, questioning whether the outlet was colluding with foreign forces, a crime under the national security law.
Ng and Ho had resigned from their positions along with all four other directors in June, when the city’s largest pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close after a national security police raid and the arrest of its leadership.
Ho confirmed in a Facebook post that she had been arrested and taken to Western District police station.
The raid sent shock waves through Hong Kong.
“Outrageous. After the fall of the Apple Daily, StandNewsHK is the largest pro-democracy media that exists in HK safeguarding our freedom of press,” the pro-democracy activist in exile Sunny Cheung tweeted on Wednesday. “It is obvious Beijing does not cease the political purge. Beijing is eradicating all room of the opposition.”
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association expressed deep concern on the arrest of directors and senior staff of Stand News. “HKJA urges the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the basic law,” a statement from the association said.
Benedict Rogers, the co-founder and CEO of the non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, said the arrests are “nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong”.
Taiwan’s ruling party accused Beijing of destroying Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom.
The most prominent remaining pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation earlier this year led to the closure of the jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s popular Apple Daily tabloid, Stand News was nominated in the “independence” category at the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom awards in November.
Stand News, which launched in 2014, was the only Hong Kong media outlet to work with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to produce reports on the Pandora Papers in October 2021, a trove of 12m leaked documents revealing the hidden wealth and tax structures of some of world’s richest and most powerful people.
The outlet was criticised by Hong Kong’s security chief earlier this month for “biased” reporting in an article about the city’s new smart prison system.
RSF’s east Asia bureau chief, Cédric Alviani, said the raids and arrests were “definitely an attack on press freedom”.
“With Stand News, one can clearly see that the Hong Kong executive’s goal is to get rid of all media that doesn’t support the official narrative in order to bring Hong Kong down to the level of repression and censorship that is equivalent to mainland China,” he said.
“When you arrest a team of journalists from a media outlet with a reputation for independence, no one can say it’s for another purpose other than to try and muzzle the media and try to control the narrative on the territory.”
In June, hundreds of police raided the premises of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged “collusion with a foreign country”. The newspaper subsequently shut down.
The arrests and raid is the latest development in what rights and press groups have called a shrinking space for press freedom in Hong Kong. The HKJA warned press freedoms in Hong Kong were at an all-time low in July.
A survey conducted by the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club last month found almost half of 100 surveyed reporters had made plans or were considering an exit, with 91% expressing concerns over a floated fake news law. Authorities have maintained that the city’s press freedoms are intact.