Hong Kong pro-democracy media outlet Stand News shut down on Wednesday after police raided its office, froze its assets and arrested senior staff on suspected "seditious publication" offenses in the latest crackdown on the city's media.
The raid raises more concerns about press freedom in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that its freedoms, including a free press, would be protected.
The police action prompted censure by Germany and the UN Human Rights Office, which said it was alarmed at the "extremely rapid closing of the civic space and outlets for Hong Kong’s civil society to speak and express themselves freely."
Stand News, set up in 2014 as a non-profit organization, was the most prominent remaining pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai's Apple Daily tabloid.
"Stand News is now stopping operations," the publication said on Facebook, adding all employees had been dismissed.
Sedition is not among the offenses listed under a sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing in June 2020 that punishes terrorism, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and secession with possible life imprisonment.
But recent court judgments have enabled authorities to use powers conferred by the new legislation to deploy rarely used colonial era laws covering sedition.
Steve Li, head of the police national security department, told reporters Stand News had published news and commentary inciting hatred against authorities.
He said some of the articles said protesters went missing during the city's 2019 pro-democracy unrest or were sexually harassed, which he called "factually baseless" and "malicious." Li also said some articles falsely claimed the Communist Party extended its powers through the city's independent courts or called for foreign sanctions.
Li did not specify the exact articles. Reuters has not independently reviewed any Stand News articles.
Li said police seized assets worth HK$61 million ($7.82 million) as well as computers, phones and journalistic materials, and that he did not rule out further arrests.
"We are not targeting reporters. We are targeting national security offenses," Li said.
Police said 200 officers searched the Stand News office and three men and four women, aged 34-73, were arrested on suspicion of "conspiracy to publish seditious publications."
Police did not identify them but media said four former members of the Stand News board were arrested - former democratic legislator Margaret Ng, pop singer Denise Ho, Chow Tat-chi and Christine Fang - as well as former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and acting chief editor Patrick Lam.
Chung's wife, Chan Pui-man, formerly with Apple Daily, was re-arrested in prison, media said.
Reuters could not reach those arrested or their legal representatives.
Ronson Chan, Stand News deputy assignment editor and the head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was not among those arrested but said police confiscated his computer, mobile, tablet, press pass and bank records during a search of his home.
"Stand News has always reported news professionally," Chan told reporters.
Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee told reporters he supported the police action.
"Anybody who attempts to make use of media work as a tool to pursue their political purpose or other interests countering the law, particularly offenses that endanger national security, they are the evil element that damages press freedom," Lee said.
Germany condemned the arrests.
"From our point of view, the events illustrate anew that there is a steady erosion of pluralism, freedom of opinion and freedom of the press in Hong Kong - especially since this national security law came into force," a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said.
"From our point of view it is very clear that critical journalism must not be placed under general suspicion," she added.
The UN rights office said it was "alarmed by the continued crackdown on civic space" in Hong Kong.
"Hong Kong ... is bound by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has a legal obligation to respect the rights to freedom of information, expression and association, as well as to guarantee due process," it said in a statement to Reuters in Geneva.
"We are witnessing an extremely rapid closing of the civic space and outlets for Hong Kong’s civil society to speak and express themselves freely..."
Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said the arrests were an "open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom."
Authorities say the national security law has restored order after often-violent pro-democracy, anti-China unrest in 2019. Critics say the legislation has set the financial hub on an authoritarian path by quashing dissent.
In June, hundreds of police raided the Apple Daily, arresting executives for alleged "collusion with a foreign country." The newspaper shut down shortly after.
On Tuesday, prosecutors filed an additional "seditious publications" charge against Lai and six other former Apple Daily staff.
The Stand News charter stated independence and a commitment to safeguarding "democracy, human rights, rule of law and justice."
After the Apple Daily raid, Stand News said it would stop accepting donations from readers and had taken down commentaries from its platform to protect supporters, authors and editorial staff, adding that "speech crimes" had come to Hong Kong.
This year, the government has also embarked on a major overhaul of public broadcaster RTHK while authorities have said they are considering "fake news" legislation.
The HKJA said it was "deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media" and searched newsrooms.