MORE 200 Hong Kong (HK) police raided pro-democracy media outlet Stand News and arrested six people connected to it, the latest actions likely to fuel concern about press freedoms in the city.   

Those arrested Wednesday for conspiring to publish seditious materials under the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance include acting Editor-in-Chief Patrick Lam and former Editor-in-Chief Chung Pui-kuen, according to the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Denise Ho, a singer who testified about Hong Kong before the US Congress, and ex-lawmaker Margaret Ng were among former Stand News board members arrested, the Post said, along with Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang Meng-sang. Ms. Ho’s arrest was confirmed on her verified Facebook page.

The government said in a statement that six current and former senior employees of an online media company, age 34 to 73, were arrested on sedition charges, without providing names. Police had a warrant to search and seize journalistic materials, it added in a separate notice.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the raid and called for the release of those detained.

“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, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “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.”

The government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously denied that local media is under political pressure, saying it is “firmly committed to protecting and respecting the freedom of the press.”

The wave of arrests came a day after Jimmy Lai, founder of the now-closed Apple Daily, and six of his former staffers, were charged with conspiracy to produce and distribute seditious publications. The 74-year-old former media mogul, who also faces national security charges, has become a focus of the government’s probe into the pro-democracy opposition.

Stand News emerged as one of Hong Kong’s most critical independent media outlets after its founding in 2014, with reporters and camera crews a near-constant presence documenting democracy protests in 2019. The outlet had braced for police scrutiny after the Apple Daily shuttered earlier this year, leaving Stand News as one of the last Chinese-language outlets providing coverage critical of the government. It announced in June that it would purge opinion pieces from its site and stop accepting subscriptions and sponsorships.

Ronson Chan, a deputy assignment editor with Stand News who is also chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said in an impromptu press conference outside his apartment that police searched his home Wednesday morning, taking away his computer, press pass and bank card.

The journalists’ association said in a statement posted to its Facebook page that it was “deeply concerned” by the arrests and raid on a news organization. “HKJA urges the government to protect press freedom in accordance with the Basic Law,” it added, citing the city’s mini-constitution that enshrines free speech.

Since Beijing passed a sweeping national security law last year, in the wake of 2019’s mass anti-government unrest, Hong Kong has imposed strict limits on what speech is allowed.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested in July that a “law needs to be introduced” to police what the media publishes. The city’s public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, has had hard-hitting programs canceled and former staff have accused the organization of purging voices critical of the government.

A reporter in April was convicted for making a false statement as part of investigation into a gang attack during pro-democracy protests in 2019, a rare prosecution of a journalist performing a once-routine search. Security Secretary Chris Tang in September accused the HKJA of having biased political views and favoring pro-democracy news organizations like the Daily and Stand News, something it denied.

Some 46% of Hong Kong-based journalists polled by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club said they were considering leaving the city last month. Hong Kong ranked 80th in Reporters Without Borders’s latest press freedom index, down from 54th a decade ago.

“Stand News has always conducted professional reporting. This is an irrefutable fact that the whole world can see,” Chan, the HKJA chairman, said Wednesday. “No crime or charge can change this fact.” — Bloomberg