Hundreds of Hong Kong national security police raided the office of online pro-democracy media outlet Stand News on Wednesday and arrested six people, including senior staff, for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications.”
The raid further raises concerns about freedom of speech and 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.
Police said in a statement that they had a warrant authorizing officers “to search and seize relevant journalistic materials.”
“Over 200 uniformed and plainclothes police officers have been deployed during the operation. The search operation is underway,” the statement said.
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 previous sparsely used colonial-era laws, including the Crime Ordinance that covers sedition.
June raid led newspaper to shut down
Authorities say the national security law has restored order after often-violent pro-democracy unrest in 2019 and that it does not curb rights and freedoms. But critics say the legislation is a tool to quash dissent.
In June, hundreds of police officers raided the premises of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged “collusion with a foreign country.” The newspaper subsequently shut down.
Hong Kong broadcaster TVB said the six people arrested on Wednesday included former board members Margaret Ng, a former democratic legislator, and Denise Ho, a pop singer, as well as acting chief editor Patrick Lam.
Stand News posted a video of police arriving at the residence of Ronson Chan, its deputy assignment editor, who is also head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
“The charge was conspiracy to publish seditious publications. This is the court warrant and this is my warrant card. Your phone is obstructing our work,” an officer is seen saying.
Police said in a separate statement that they had arrested three men and three women, aged 34 to 73, and that searches of their homes were underway. It did not name those arrested, in line with its usual practice.
The Stand News bureau, in an industrial building in the Kwun Tong working-class district, was partially sealed off by dozens of police, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.
A police media liaison officer on the 14th floor said entry to the office would not be permitted given an “ongoing operation.” He declined to give further details.
Four police vans were parked downstairs as dozens of officers milled around the lobby.
Stand News earlier this year said it would suspend subscriptions and remove most opinion pieces and columns from its website due to the national security law. Six board members had also resigned from the company.
Benedict Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the non-governmental organization Hong Kong Watch, said the arrests are “nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”
“When a free press guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law is labelled ‘seditious,’ it is a symbol of the speed at which this once great, open, international city has descended into little more than a police state,” he said.
The arrests come as authorities crack down on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Police charged former newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai with sedition on Tuesday. His Apple Daily newspaper shut down after its assets were frozen. He was already facing charges under the national security law.
Police have not disclosed which Apple Daily or Stand News articles they considered seditious.
The arrests also follow the removal of sculptures and other artwork from university campuses last week. The works supported democracy and memorialized the victims of China’s crackdown on democracy protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
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