Authorities in Hong Kong on Thursday charged two senior editors at the now-shuttered pro-democracy Stand News with "sedition" and denied them bail, following a raid on the news website by national security police.
Acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam and former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen, and the company that owns the media outlet were charged with conspiring "together and with other persons, to publish and/or reproduce seditious publications," court documents showed.
They also stand accused of inciting "hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection" against the government and the incitement of "persons to violence."
Four former Stand News board members including Cantopop star Denise Ho were released on bail without charge, while the seventh arrestee, Chan Pui-man, is already in custody awaiting trial on separate charges under a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing from July 1, 2020.
Only Chung, 52, appeared in court on Thursday, nodding to supporters in the gallery, while Lam was in hospital.
The Dec. 29 raid saw more than 200 police officers raid Stand News offices, and seven people arrested on suspicion of "sedition" under a colonial-era law. An asset freeze using powers under the national security law prompted the outlet to cease operations immediately and lay off all staff.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken hit out at the raid, which came amid an ongoing crackdown on journalists and news organizations under a citywide crackdown on public dissent and political opposition ordered by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the wake of the 2019 protest movement.
"The ... raid and arrest of seven senior staff at Stand News have forced yet another of the few remaining bastions of free and independent media in Hong Kong to cease operations," Blinken said in a statement.
"Journalism is not sedition," he said. "We call on PRC and Hong Kong authorities to cease targeting Hong Kong’s free and independent media and to immediately release those journalists and media executives who have been unjustly detained and charged."
"By silencing independent media, [the Chinese and Hong Kong] authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability," Blinken said.
Similar criticisms have been heard from the United Nations Human Rights Office, EU Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Peter Stano, a German foreign ministry spokesperson, Canadian foreign minister Mélanie Joly, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne and U.K. deputy foreign minister Amanda Milling.
A spokesman for China's foreign ministry in Hong Kong rejected international criticism of the raid.
"We urge external forces to stop interfering in the ... name of so-called “human rights and freedom” and stop meddling with Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs," the spokesman said.
He accused "external forces" of supporting "anti-China forces in Hong Kong ... so that they could continue to disrupt Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability."
'An all-out assault'
The U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch condemned the raid on Stand News.
"These arrests are nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong, coming just one day after Jimmy Lai and six former Apple Daily journalists received similar charges," the group's chief executive Benedict Rogers said.
"When a free press guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law is labelled 'seditious,' it is a symbol of the speed at which this once great open international city has descended into little more than a police state," he said.
"Today, a reporter’s notebook has become a dangerous instrument in Hong Kong, and to write on its blank pages ideas, comments, opinions or facts could be a criminal offense," Rogers said. "Reporting the truth in Hong Kong is now a crime."
He called on the U.K. government to target Hong Kong and Chinese officials "who seek to crush all dissent" with sanctions.
Eric Lai, an expert in Hong Kong law at Georgetown University, said the use of colonial-era sedition clauses in the Crime Ordinance showed that Beijing doesn't see the existing national security law as sufficient to stifle dissent or opposition to the CCP in Hong Kong.
"The definition of incitement is actually broader than that in the national security law, including incitement of hatred of the judicial system," Lai said. "The other reason is that the government has always talked about the need to use local law in national security cases."
He said Beijing will likely restart plans for local national security legislation, shelved amid mass popular protest in 2003, during the next Legislative Council (LegCo), now devoid of any genuine political opposition following Dec. 19 elections under new rules ensuring that only pro-China candidates could run.
He said the use of the colonial-era sedition law exposes Hong Kong journalists to "huge political risk."
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Gigi Lee, Cheng Yut Yiu, Lau Siu Fung and Lu Xi.