HONG KONG – Stand News, one of the last independent news organizations in Hong Kong, was forced to cease operations Wednesday after police arrested six current and former executives in predawn raids, accusing them of a conspiracy to publish “seditious” material and freezing the company’s assets.
The events followed a playbook used by authorities to shut down Apple Daily, the popular pro-democracy newspaper, earlier this year and underscore how swiftly they are moving to snuff out any remaining critical voices in the territory. Stand News was nominated this year for the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Prize.
Those arrested include the acting chief editor, Patrick Lam, along with the singer Denise Ho and the lawyer and former lawmaker Margaret Ng, who were both former board members of Stand News. A seventh person, a former Apple Daily executive who was already in jail facing national security charges, was also rearrested in connection with the Stand News case.
Police briefly detained Ronson Chan, Stand News’s deputy assignment editor, who chairs the Hong Kong Journalists Association, and other executives to assist with the investigation. Chan tried to live-stream the raid when police arrived at his door, until officers told him to stop.
More than 200 police officers were deployed to Stand News’s offices with a warrant that allowed them to search and seize any journalistic materials. Officers carted out boxes of materials, including computers and cellphones.
Steve Li, senior superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force’s national security department, which conducted the raids, said Stand News had issued “seditious materials” intended to cause hatred toward the government and judiciary and discontent among the public.
The sweep intensifies pressure on journalists in Hong Kong as Beijing overhauls institutions in the territory, including schools and the legislature, to bring them in line with the repressive conditions on the Chinese mainland.
Earlier this year, Apple Daily was forced to close after police arrested its executives and froze its assets. The newspaper’s founder, Jimmy Lai, is in prison serving sentences for peaceful protests and also faces charges under a national security law that China imposed on the city last year, which effectively criminalized dissent with penalties of up to life behind bars.
In an interview this month with Voice of America, Chan, speaking in his capacity as chair of the journalists association, said 2021 had been the “saddest year” for the press in Hong Kong, with “many red lines” now confronting journalists. Authorities have tightened the screws on public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, eroding its editorial independence and forcing it to play a role as a state mouthpiece rather than an independent voice.
The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, in a survey published in November of almost 100 journalists working in the city, found that 84% of respondents said the environment for the press had changed for the worse. About half said they had avoided topics or self-censored to some degree since the national security law took effect.
The forced closure of Stand News comes amid a flurry of repressive actions in Hong Kong, which held a legislative vote this month that only “patriots” – those loyal to the Communist Party – could contest. Days later, with the pro-Beijing camp occupying the entire legislature and the pro-democracy opposition in jail, authorities removed statues on university campuses commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, erasing one of the last symbols of how life in Hong Kong was different from life on the mainland.
Stand News was founded in December 2014 after the Umbrella Movement protests, an unsuccessful campaign by Hong Kongers demanding the right to elect their leaders. The outlet often elevates voices of pro-democracy activists in the city and was known for its live broadcasts of anti-government protests in 2019.
Since the action against Apple Daily, reporters and editors at Stand News had been bracing for arrests or other moves by the authorities to target the company, given its status as the most prominent surviving pro-democracy publication. The organization took its editorials and other non-news items offline as a precautionary measure, and several of its board members resigned, including Ho and Ng.
Stand News staffers, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, described an atmosphere of nervousness in recent months. Colleagues would notify each other in secure chat groups if they saw people who resembled plainclothes officers loitering outside their offices. Reporters would wake before dawn to check for news of raids or arrests, such as the one on Wednesday.
But there was also an increased sense of responsibility, given the demise of other pro-democracy voices.
“We felt it’s only us left, after Apple Daily,” one reporter said. “Everyone who stays wants to stay till the end. We still want to do a bit more,” he added, before his voice trailed off and he began to cry.