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Hong Kong pro-democracy Stand News shuts down after police raid, arrests

The police action prompted censure from
the Committee to Protect Journalists and the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva
which said it was alarmed at the “extremely rapid closing of the civic
space and outlets for Hong Kong’s civil society to speak and express themselves
freely”.

Stand News, set up in 2014 as a
non-profit organisation, was the most prominent remaining pro-democracy
publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led
to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily tabloid.

The raid raises more concerns about
press freedom 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.

“Stand News is now stopping
operations,” the publication said on Facebook, adding all employees had
been dismissed.

Steve Li, head of the police national
security department, told reporters Stand News had published news and
commentary inciting hatred against authorities.

He said some of the articles said
protesters went missing during the city’s 2019 pro-democracy unrest or were
sexually harassed, which he called “factually baseless” and
“malicious”. Li also said some articles falsely claimed the Communist
Party extended its powers through the city’s independent courts or called for
foreign sanctions.

Li did not specify the exact articles.
Reuters has not independently reviewed any Stand News articles.

Li said police seized assets worth HK$61
million ($7.82 million) as well as computers, phones and journalistic
materials, and that he did not rule out further arrests.

“We are not targeting reporters. We
are targeting national security offences,” Li said.

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Police said 200 officers searched the
Stand News office and three men and four women, aged 34-73, were arrested on
suspicion of “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”.

Police did not identify them but media
said four former members of the Stand News board were arrested – former
democratic legislator Margaret Ng, pop singer Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and
Christine Fang – as well as former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and acting chief
editor Patrick Lam.

Chung’s wife, Chan Pui-man, formerly
with Apple Daily, was re-arrested in prison, media said.

Reuters could not reach those arrested
or their legal representatives.

Ronson Chan, Stand News deputy
assignment editor and the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA),
was not among those arrested but said police confiscated his computer, mobile,
tablet, press pass and bank records during a search of his home.

“Stand News has always reported
news professionally,” Chan told reporters.

Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee told
reporters he supported the police action.

“Anybody who attempts to make use
of media work as a tool to pursue their political purpose or other interests
countering the law, particularly offences that endanger national security, they
are the evil element that damages press freedom,” Lee said.

‘OPEN ASSAULT’

Earlier on Wednesday, scores of police
were seen loading about three dozen boxes of documents and other seized
material onto a truck.

The UN rights office said it was
“alarmed by the continued crackdown on civic 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,” it said in a statement to Reuters in
Geneva.

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“We are witnessing an extremely
rapid closing of the civic space and outlets for Hong Kong’s civil society to
speak and express themselves freely, and we call on the authorities to ensure
that further proceedings in these cases fully respect these rights laid out in
the Covenant.”

Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator
for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the arrests were an “open
assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom”.

Sedition is not among the offences
listed under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020
that punishes terrorism, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and
secession with possible life imprisonment.

But recent court judgements have enabled
authorities to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy rarely
used colonial era laws covering sedition.

Authorities say the security law has
restored order after often-violent pro-democracy, anti-China unrest in 2019.
Critics say the legislation has set the financial hub on an authoritarian path
by quashing dissent.

‘SPEECH CRIMES’

In June, hundreds of police raided the
Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged “collusion with a foreign
country”. The newspaper shut down shortly after.

On Tuesday, prosecutors filed an
additional “seditious publications” charge against Lai and six other
former Apple Daily staff.

The Stand News charter stated
independence and a commitment to safeguarding “democracy, human rights,
rule of law and justice”.

After the Apple Daily raid, Stand News
said it would stop accepting donations from readers and had taken down
commentaries from its platform to protect supporters, authors and editorial
staff, adding that “speech crimes” had come to Hong Kong.

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This year, the government has also
embarked on a major overhaul of public broadcaster RTHK while authorities have said
they are considering “fake news” legislation.

The HKJA said it was “deeply
concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the
media” and searched newsrooms.

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