The Christmas attack on Hong Kong website Stand News was no great surprise in a city where all forms of political opposition are being dismantled wholesale, but the scale, speed and nature of the operation to shutter this pro-democracy website were still shocking.
Over 200 police officers swept into the newsroom, and others fanned out over the city making arrests under a harsh sedition law from the days of British colonial rule that had been gathering dust for decades.
Activists warned that the legal charges used against the website could effectively make any critical journalism illegal in Hong Kong, after a senior police officer said they were based in part on publication of news reports that “incited hatred towards the Hong Kong government”.
“They are making it illegal to do honest reporting,” said Nathan Law, exiled pro-democracy activist. “If you ‘incite hatred’ to the government by reporting truthful news, you are also subject to this law, which means you can only talk about the positive side of the government now. This is the signal they are trying to send.”
Establishment links and foreign passports are no protection; those detained include former board members and pop star Denise Ho, who is a Canadian citizen, and Christine Fang, who spent years at the heart of the Hong Kong elite including serving on multiple government committees.
The fact that both had stepped down from their positions months earlier, when Stand News also took down much of the political commentary on its site, was also ominous. It suggested that even those who have tried to accommodate the new political order may face punishment for past work.
“It means that being a respected establishment figure or having a foreign passport won’t spare you. They had already stepped down. Short of renouncing their previous involvement, what more could they have done?” said Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer in journalism at City, University of London.
Stand News was the most prominent and influential pro-democracy site left in Hong Kong after authorities forced popular tabloid Apple Daily to shut this summer, raiding its newsroom, freezing its assets and detaining key members of staff.
While that closure took days, Stand News was out of operation within hours, with Hong Kong authorities more confident and experienced after months of using new legal powers to shutter groups from civil society to major media outlets, dismantling the political opposition.
Among tributes to Stand News, many reporters and readers shared a list the outlet created of organisations disbanded over the last year. There were over 50, even before Stand News was added.
The erasure of dissent has extended to the city’s physical landscape, with the pre-Christmas removal of memorials commemorating Beijing’s deadly 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy protesters.
Just months earlier the shuttered website had been held up by pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip as an example of press freedom still surviving in Hong Kong, amid widespread international condemnation of the closure of Apple Daily.
Now journalists are wondering who, in a city with a fast-diminishing number of independent reporters and outlets, will be next.
“The arrests of six people associated with Stand News amounts to an open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom, as China steps up direct control over the former colony,” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“Authorities must release the six and drop all charges against them immediately if Hong Kong is to retain any semblance of the freedoms that its residents enjoyed only a few years ago.”
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