Staff of pro-democracy news website Stand News accused of ‘conspiracy to publish seditious publication’.
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 suspected “seditious publications” offences.
Stand News, set up in 2014 as a non-profit, is the most prominent remaining pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security probe earlier this year led to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s iconic Apple Daily tabloid.
The raid further raises concerns about media freedoms in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise a wide range of individual rights would be protected.
Police said in a statement it had a warrant authorising it “to search and seize relevant journalistic materials”.
“Over 200 uniformed and plain clothes police officers have been deployed,” the statement said.
Photos published on social media also showed non-uniformed police personnel hauling plastic crates outside the publication’s office.
Separately, police said they had arrested three men and three women, aged 34 to 73, without naming them, for “conspiracy to publish seditious publications”.
According to news reports, Patrick Lam, the chief editor of Stand News, was among those who were arrested. Lam was reportedly arrested by police in his home and several gadgets were also confiscated from him.
Stand News earlier said Ronson Chan, its deputy assignment editor who is also the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, was taken in for questioning.
The news site posted a video of police arriving at Chan’s residence and showing their court warrant.
Chan was later released by the police. In a statemen after the police search of his residence, he said, “Stand News has always reported the news professionally, this is without doubt and everyone knows that. Whatever crime will not change this fact.”
Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera the arrests had “nothing to do with” sedition.
“They are pure retribution by the Chinese government, which seeks to eradicate the free media in Hong Kong documenting Beijing’s abusive conduct,” Richardson said. “Shutting down Stand News, Apple Daily, and other critical outlets lays that agenda bare.”
Following months of anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing last year imposed a sweeping National Security Law in the semi-autonomous city that critics say restricts freedoms promised to the former British colony that are not found on mainland China.
The law criminalises secessionism, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs.
Since it was implemented in June last year, more than 100 pro-democracy supporters have been arrested under the law, and many others have fled abroad.
Earlier this year, police raided the offices of the pro-democracy publication Apple Daily, forcing it to subsequently shut down after its assets were frozen.
Lai, a staunch China critic, was also arrested and put in prison.
Earlier this month, Lai was found guilty of several charges linked to his alleged involvement in a banned vigil last year commemorating the victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
On Tuesday, police also charged Lai with sedition.
Oliver Farry, a foreign correspondent and writer in Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera the arrests appeared to be part of a targeted campaign against media critical of the authorities.
“It’s hard to see things letting up. Media are being extra careful under the National Security Law but the arrests today, as many others have been, are under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance, which is equally vague and wide-ranging,” Farry said.
“If the government wants to pursue anyone, they have ample tools at their disposal in these laws. And, much as foreign governments or media outlets might cry foul about it, there is ultimately little they can do.”
Farry said he expected authorities to continue cracking down on media in the city.
“It’s unclear whether other independent media will also be targeted — the Hong Kong and Chinese governments for now are more concerned about going after those, like Stand News, that publish in Chinese,” he said.
“But there will likely be a move against the Hong Kong Journalists Association. This has been coming for quite some time. Pro-Beijing media and some members of the government have been making noises about the HKJA having a bias against the government and of irregular membership practices. It’s really not that hard to imagine the government banning it.”
Authorities say the National Security Law has restored stability after months of often violent pro-democracy protests.
Officials in Hong Kong and China have repeatedly said media freedoms are respected but not absolute and that they cannot endanger national security.
The works supported democracy and memorialised the victims of China’s crackdown on democracy protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.