The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called on Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to immediately release staff members of the pro-democracy media outlet Stand News who were arrested after a police raid.
“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,” Blinken said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
“By silencing independent media, PRC and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability,” he added.
“A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press. Journalism is not sedition.”
In response, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday that the raid and arrests were not aimed at the media industry.
Lam said the demands of foreign governments to release the arrested individuals would be against the rule of law.
Seven current and former Stand News editors, board members and a journalist were arrested on Wednesday on charges of conspiracy to publish a seditious publication.
Among those who were arrested were chief editor Patrick Lam, as well as former board members, including popular singer and activist Denise Ho and former lawmaker Margaret Ng.
Canada will always stand up to support democracy and freedom of the press. We are deeply concerned by the arrests in Hong Kong of current and former board and staff members from Stand News, including Canadian citizen and activist Denise Ho.
— Mélanie Joly (@melaniejoly) December 29, 2021
The seven were arrested under a crime ordinance that dates from Hong Kong’s days as a British colony before 1997, when it was returned to China. Those convicted could face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($640).
Stand News, set up in 2014 as a non-profit organisation, 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.
‘All-out assault on press freedom’
The Stand News 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.
Following the raid and the freezing of its assets worth 61 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.8m) on Wednesday, Stand News announced that it was shutting down the publication.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly also denounced the arrests of the journalists in Hong Kong, among them Denise Ho, who was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Canada.
“We are deeply concerned by the arrests in Hong Kong of current and former board and staff members from Stand News, including Canadian citizen and activist Denise Ho,” Joly said
The US has already imposed sanctions on Hong Kong leaders and curtailed the territory’s separate status under US regulations after Beijing went ahead and imposed a draconian security law.
A journalists’ association in Hong Kong urged the city’s government to protect press freedom in accordance with Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
“The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) is deeply concerned that 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,” it said in a statement.
Benedict Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, said the arrests are “nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”
“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 to little more than a police state,” he said.
Wednesday’s arrests also followed the removal of sculptures and other artwork from university campuses last week.
The works supported democracy and memorialised the victims of China’s crackdown on democracy protesters at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.