Closures of independent media outlets in Hong Kong amid a press freedom crackdown are changing the landscape for both news and aspiring journalists, a leading academic has said.

“The closure or departure of four independent news organisations in the last seven months is a real blow to the Hong Kong media landscape as well as the employment prospects for Hong Kong’s many journalism students.” Robin Ewing, the program director of International Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Central News.

In the past week, news website Stand News was raided by the police and seven current or former staff were arrested. Two, including its acting chief editor, were charged with disseminating seditious publications, assets were frozen and the site was unable to keep operating. Another online media outlet, Citizen News, made the choice to close down a few days later over fears they could also be targeted. Their employees have been dismissed.

Speaking to Central News, Ms Ewing said while there were still plenty of jobs for journalism students in Hong Kong, a declining press freedom might be one of the reasons affecting numbers of course applications. She added a loss of faith in media in Hong Kong by youth could also have contributed.

Self-censorship will continue to grow within the local news media.

“Jobs in English media still exist. It’s mostly the Chinese media that is losing independent outlets,” she said. “But again, students remain optimistic and continue to report for our student media.”

The closures of the two outlets follow the shutdown of Apple Daily and the relocation of Initium Media to Singapore, both in the past six months.

Dean Cox, a senior lecturer teaching journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University, told Central News: “As a long-time practising journalist and journalism educator, I am understandably very saddened and disappointed by what has been happening in Hong Kong during the past year as independent news media organisations are forced to close, or disappear on their own free will because of fear from this continuously oppressive government and threats against press freedom.

“It won’t end here. There are still plenty more news media targets – local and international – that will be harassed and pressured until the city reaches the same equilibrium of press censorship and media control as in mainland China. Self-censorship will continue to grow within the local news media.”

Police raid at Stand News’ office

Seven people linked to Stand News – three men and four women aged 34 to 73 – were arrested, and at least four current staff members were held for investigation, said Steve Li, senior superintendent of Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Department. He would not rule out further arrests relating to the case at the press conference addressing the morning operations.

A total of $HK61 million ($A10.8 million) of Stand News’ assets were also frozen by the government, according to Li. 

The current or former employees were arrested for “conspiracies to publish seditious material” in breach of the colonial-era Crime Ordinance.

In the raid that Li said had been fully authorised by the court with warrants issued, the police also seized news production materials, computers, mobile phones and $HK500,000 in cash.

Over 200 national security officers were sent to its newsroom in Kwun Tong.

Both editors and ex-directors on Stand News’ board are among those held as the police claimed they played “important roles in the organisation’s editorial direction and strategy”.

Stand News’ acting chief editor Patrick Lam reportedly stepped down at once from his position upon his arrest along with board member and former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen. Both have been charged.

Deputy assignment editor Ronson Chan, who is the chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was held for investigation. The police went to Chan’s to investigate and search with a court-issued warrant at about 6am on Wednesday. He started a live stream on Stand News‘ Facebook page right away that officers asked him to close within a minute. The live footage became the last news content that Stand News posted.

Police from the National Security Department raiding Ronson Chan’s home. Photo: Stand News Facebook live screenshot.

Pro-democracy icons, the pop singer Denise Ho and barrister Margaret Ng, were among those apprehended as former members of the board of the outspoken publication, who had resigned from their positions in June.

Both Ho and Ng were released on bail a day later.

Other ex-directors, Christine Fang and Chow Tai-chi, were arrested, too. The police confirmed a 51-year-old woman was arrested for the same reason following the morning raid, reportedly Chan Pui-man, who is already behind bars – the former associate publisher of the halted pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily allegedly also participated in publishing at Stand News.

Tony Tsoi, the co-founder of Stand News who is rumoured to have now moved to Australia, is also wanted by the police.

Shortly after the raid the HKJA released a statement expressing “deep concern” at the arrests.

“HKJA is deeply concerned the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organisations containing large quantities of journalistic materials within a year,” the statement read.

‘Seditious material to cause hatred’

Steve Li speaking at the press conference held by the police’s National Security Department. Photo: i-Cable News Facebook live screenshot.

Speaking at a press conference on the day of the raids senior superintendent Steve Li accused Stand News of publishing “seditious material” with the purpose of causing hatred against the Hong Kong government and judiciary, from the enactment of the National Security Law in July 2020 to this November. He alleged Stand News promoted disaffection and the use of violence among citizens that resulted in disobedience to the law or government’s orders.

The outlet was further accused of publishing materials that “endangered the national security through incitement to separate the country, subvert the government or sanction the local or Chinese government”.

The allegations relate to news reports that Li called “baseless” reporting during mass protests in 2019, interviews and blogs of activists who had been arrested, prosecuted, or in exile. Li claimed there was “strong evidence” that Stand News conspired with other “so-called international front activists” who lobby foreign governments to impose sanctions to “cause hatred”.

He quoted Stand News as writing “only when having two countries, you can have two systems,” as an example of the sedition.

The police also questioned the source of funding of Stand News, a non-profit that accepts donations from the public, and suggested the “true purpose” of its UK bureau was “to collude with foreign forces”.

“The amount of its [Stand News] funds was enough for them to launch a UK office. Why would they need that as they primarily focus on the local news, though?” Li asked.

Stand News and Citizen News close

Stand News announcing the cessation of operations on Facebook. Photo: Stand News Facebook post screenshot.

“Due to the situation, Stand News is suspending operations immediately. Our website and social media will stop updating, and [content] is to be removed within a day,” said a statement posted on Stand News’ Facebook page at 4pm last Wednesday.

“With an independent and autonomous editorial guideline, we have aimed to protect the core values of Hong Kong – including democracy, human rights, the rule of law, justice, until we shut down on 29 December 2021.”

Chan was released in the afternoon following the raid, and he soon returned to the newsroom in Kwun Tong. After the announcement, he appeared outside the office and told awaiting press: “It is quite a sorrowful day today. Thank you, all our readers, for your support.

“To our fellow members in the industry [of journalism], please hang in there.”

The outlet later removed all content from social media, with its Twitter and Facebook accounts deleted at 11pm that day. At the same time, its website turned black and was replaced by the same statement.

Stand News’s Twitter and website after closure. Photo: screenshots.

Its UK bureau was closed the following day.

Yeung Tin-shui, the bureau chief, confirmed the closure with all contents removed and his resignation on a Facebook post.

The UK office was opened in February, and was set to cover Hong Kong people who had moved to the UK and support the Hong Kong newsroom overnight, he explained.

Stand News was one of the last pro-democracy media outlets in Hong Kong. Founded by Tony Tsoi and other media figures seven years ago, it grew to be one of the major news outlets in Hong Kong following the protests in the city from 2019.

It was also the sole Hong Kong-based news outlet that collaborated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the Pandora Papers project, in which a considerable number of documents of the world’s prominent figures’ financial secrets was leaked. Stand News covered two former chief executives of Hong Kong in their stories.

Stand News’s website. Photo: screenshot.

Stand News’s Facebook page. Photo: Stand News Facebook screenshot.

Citizen News, another local independent news site founded by veteran journalists in 2017, stunned the city a few days later by announcing “with a heavy heart” it would halt operations after five years, citing safety and well-being concerns for its staff.

“We all love this place, deeply. Regrettably, what was ahead of us is not just pouring rains or blowing winds, but hurricanes and tsunamis,” it said in its statement.

“At the centre of a brewing storm, we found ourself (ourselves) in a critical situation. In the face of a crisis, we must ensure the safety and well-being of everyone who are (is) on board.”

Chris Yeung, the founder and chief writer, said the outlet made the decision amid fears of disobeying the law, citing blurred legal boundaries. He added their staff members felt unassured they could continue carrying out their journalistic work in a safe environment.

He said: “If we continue, we can’t report on the news we want to report. There’s no other choice but to stop.

“The indications are clear that overall, media is facing an increasingly tough environment. And for those who are being seen as critical or troublemakers, they are more vulnerable. This is what we are facing, and that is why we made the decision in the midst of those uncertainties.”

According to Yeung, Citizen News had not been approached by the police or national security on any matters.

Cox argued: “A chilling effect has already been happening since mid-2019 – and probably earlier – when news media organisations were deciding how to cover the social unrest. Some news media organisations deliberately made editorial decisions on how to cover the unrest, deciding what kind of language to use and what kinds of stories to write.

“Those organisations that were more favourable toward the government and/or more aggressive against the pro-democracy social movement are still happily operating today. The others have been targeted and shut down, or in the case of Citizen News have decided themselves to shut down. Reputable foreign news media will continue to report as they always have, and therefore may face a future of being pushed out of the city.”

‘Red lines’ and press freedom in Hong Kong

The spate of shutdowns since the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL) has sharply raised concerns about press freedom.

Apple Daily, one of the most circulated and influential newspapers in Hong Kong, in a similar case was forced to halt operations after a raid and arrests in June. It printed its last edition with 1 million copies. They sold out with crowds lining up before news stands from midnight. Jimmy Lai, its founder, one of the pro-democracy icons with an international reputation, has been jailed ever since, on numerous charges.

Three days after Apple Daily’s forced closure, Stand News pledged to keep digging for the truth with countermeasures announced, including taking down previously published blogs and opinions to “protect its supporters, writers and editors by reducing the risk [of being targeted].” That was the point where most of its board members resigned.

As much as the Hong Kong government claims press freedom still exists and is guaranteed, it’s pretty much known by the news media community, journalism educators, and general public that it’s not true.

HKJA published its annual report on the city’s freedom of speech this year in July, titled “Freedom in Tatters,” where it highlighted that the NSL had “spread fears and curbed freedom”.

“With the law in place, ‘red lines’ are everywhere, and fear prevails,” Yeung, the chief editor of Freedom in Tatters, wrote, saying “pressure on free thinking is mounting.”

“The law has also caused strong deterrent effects and profound impact on different aspects of life in the society. An air of fear and anxiety has blanketed the city,” he added.

When asked about the impact the crackdowns will bring to the press freedom in Hong Kong, Cox said: “More news media organisations will close on their own or move their base, as did Initium Media when it moved to Singapore.

“The local and mainland government will continue to make it more difficult for foreign international news media to operate within the city without harassment, which includes refusing press credentials where it deems fit, refusing visas to journalists, banning access to foreign news media websites and more.

“As much as the Hong Kong government claims that press freedom still exists and is guaranteed, it’s pretty much known by the news media community, journalism educators, and the general public that it’s not true. While the guarantee in press freedom for Hong Kong may exist in writing according to the Basic Law, it’s definitely no longer being followed or allowed.”

The Chief Secretary John Lee, deputy leader of Hong Kong, called Stand News a “bad apple” in the industry that was “abusing (its) position and news as a tool to pursue (its) own purposes” and an “evil element that (was) damaging press freedom”.

However, to many the loss of Apple Daily, as an outspoken voice in the journalism industry, and the folding of Stand News and Citizen News has been traumatic.

Lau Kwong Shing, a young Hong Kong illustrator and a prominent political cartoonist during the protests, posted his latest artworks online following the crackdowns, and said he had moved to Taiwan where he had freedom to live and work.

Lau Kwong Shing’s artwork on arrests to Stand News and its subsequent shutdown. FB post caption: “Journalists are just reporting the truth.” Photo: Supplied by Lau Kwong Shing

Lau Kwong Shing’s artwork on Citizen News’ closure, featuring the newsroom’ logo. FB post caption: “The most important thing is everyone is fine, even all is gone. #ThankYouCitizenNews”Photo: Supplied by Lau Kwong Shing.

Foreign politicians, governments, press and organisations have also criticised the crackdown on Stand News.

Benedict Rogers, the co-founder and chief executive of human rights organisation Hong Kong Watch, told Central News: “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.

“On a personal note, I began my career as a journalist and activist in Hong Kong, which at the time was one of Asia’s most open cities where a reporter’s notebook meant something. 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 offence. Reporting the truth in Hong Kong is now a crime.”

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, defended the raids as “law enforcement actions” that “have nothing to do with so-called suppression of press freedom”.

“Journalism isn’t sedition, but seditious acts and activities and inciting other people through public acts and activities could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting,” she said in response to the US Secretary of State’s remarks on the incident.

“If [the] implementation of the national security law would undermine press freedom, then we would not be seeing any press freedom in the western world.”

Cox emphasised that independent news media is critical for society to thrive.

“It is there to hold leaders – in politics, business or whatever – accountable,” he said. “If all a society has is state or government-controlled media – basically a unipolar propaganda vehicle – then it can do whatever it wants without accountability or interference.”

Main image of two artworks by Lau Kwong Shing. Supplied: Lau Kwong Shing