More than six months after Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper was forced to shut down, the closure of another iconic pro-democracy media outlet – Stand News – is seen as another blow to press freedom.
On Wednesday, 200 police raided its headquarters and arrested seven people. The website announced its closure and on Thursday two of its staff – reported to be former senior editors – were charged with sedition.
The Stand News was an obvious target. It was known for its coverage of large-scale protests in Hong Kong as well as producing in-depth investigative projects. The authorities saw it as a challenge.
Steve Li, the senior superintendent of the Police National Security Department in Hong Kong, accused Stand News of publishing seditious content between June 2020 and Nov. 2021. He claimed the intent of these publications is to trigger hatred towards the government and cause discontent among the public.
He added that many of the articles were written by individuals who were arrested or those who are in exile, while some were interviews with these figures. There is strong evidence showing that this online media and other so-called ‘international front’ [activists] conspired to incite hatred towards the government, and endangered national security through its platform,” Li said during a press conference.
Experts and activists view the closure of Stand News as both predictable and worrying.
“While the evidence highlighted in the Apple Daily case was mainly opinion articles, police cited news reports as part of the ‘seditious content,’” said Eric Lai, Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. “It’s a blow to press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Some activists describe the crackdown as the Hong Kong government’s attempt to create a “black box situation” in the semi-autonomous city, as authorities try to prevent things happening in Hong Kong from being known by the outside world and vice versa.
“I feel like this is an attempt to turn Hong Kong into a black box where nothing can go in and out,” said Glacier Kwong, a political activist in exile in Germany. “This is also to hinder anyone from investigating the authorities, which is doing critical journalistic works. Without these media outlets, there is no room for these investigations to happen.”
While Steve Li denied speculation that authorities in Hong Kong are trying to regulate media, experts think recent trends show the government is willing to use seditious charges more frequently against media outlets. On Tuesday, prosecutors in the city added an additional charge of “publishing seditious content” to Jimmy Lai and seven other former Apple Daily employees.
“Since sedition charges offer a much broader interpretation… than the national security law (NSL) it’s a much easier tool for the government to silence local or foreign media outlets,” Eric Lai told The Independent.
“Wednesday’s arrest also reveals that the Hong Kong government has become more hostile towards media and press freedom.”
Glacier Kwong points out that since the Hong Kong government has repeatedly emphasised that the NSL can’t be applied retroactively, the seditious charge allows authorities to trace the media outlet’s publication back to 2019 or even earlier.
“This is one example of how authorities in Hong Kong use different laws to ensure the stability of the regime,” she told The Independent.
For press freedom defenders, the closure of two Hong Kong media outlets in 2021 reflects the Chinese authorities’ intolerance towards critical media outlets.
“The plan of the Chinese regime is to make sure that in the future, the level of press freedom in Hong Kong is not much higher than how it is now in China, which is truly scary,” said Cedric Alviani, the East Asia Bureau head for Reporters Without Borders.
“I’m afraid that this could be only the beginning of the downfall and there might be a moment when it wouldn’t be necessary to rank Hong Kong separately on the World Press Freedom Index due to the fact that the level of press freedom would be similar to China. I truly fear this moment,” he added.
And while some think the loss of independent media in Hong Kong will create a chilling effect among people in the city, they also think journalists in the city are not ready to give up just yet.
“When reporters at the Stand News were interviewed by foreign media today, they said they would stay in Hong Kong because they wanted to stay until the end and they wanted to do their jobs as journalists,” said Glacier Kwong.
“As the protest in 2019 has shown, Hong Kongers are very creative and with the help of technology and a lot of different tools, there are still ways to preserve Stand News’ content, even if it’s not as visible as before,” she added.
However, since the police use the implementation rules of the NSL to freeze Stand News’ assets and search its headquarters, Eric Lai thinks that foreign media outlets with assets or operations in Hong Kong would still face the risk of being targeted by the government through charges or laws that are not part of the NSL.
“These foreign media outlets would still have the risk of being searched or raided or arrested once the government regards them as endangering national security or promoting sedition,” he told The Independent.