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Stand News senior editor Ronson Chan, middle, is arrested by police officers in Hong Kong on Dec. 29, 2021. Hong Kong police said they arrested several people connected to the media outlet, including Chan, who is also head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, for conspiracy to publish a seditious publication.The Associated Press

Police in Hong Kong have arrested six people connected to independent media outlet Stand News, in the latest crackdown against the press in a city once known as a hub for Asian media.

More than 200 police officers were deployed during the operation Wednesday morning local time, the authorities said in a statement. Multiple premises were searched and six arrested for sedition under a colonial-era ordinance.

One of those detained was Ronson Chan, a deputy assignment editor at Stand News and head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, which has come in for intense criticism from the authorities in recent months. Mr. Chan livestreamed his arrest on social media until police ordered him to stop recording.

Others arrested Wednesday include Margaret Ng, a prominent barrister and former pro-democracy lawmaker, and Canadian-Chinese pop star and activist Denise Ho, both of whom sat on the board of Stand News. Police said they were searching six residences and the Stand News offices and were authorized to “seize relevant journalistic materials.”

The searches were carried out under the national-security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in mid-2020, which has been used to power a sweeping crackdown against civil society that has resulted in dozens of organizations disbanding and the arrest or exile of almost every prominent opposition activist.

Since the law was introduced, the pro-democracy Apple Daily was forced to close after a number of its executives and top editors were arrested and its assets frozen, while public broadcaster RTHK has been placed under tight government control, with its editorial independence reined in.

Founded in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Stand News is among the most prominent independent media in Hong Kong, widely read and viewed as highly credible by the public, according to a 2019 study by a local university. After Apple Daily’s closing, Stand instituted radical changes to try and avoid a similar fate, unpublishing many critical op-eds and stopping donations.

That did not prevent the publication coming in for harsh criticism, however, from both local officials and Beijing-controlled media outlets in Hong Kong. Mr. Chan also faced attacks because of his role as HKJA chair, with Security Secretary Chris Tang accusing the media union of “infiltrating” schools and “breaching professional ethics” by pushing a political agenda.

Even as other civil-society groups facing similar pressure disbanded rather than see executives and volunteers arrested, Mr. Chan mounted a fierce defence of HKJA, accusing Mr. Tang of spreading “false information” about the union.

“We respect and obey the law,” Mr. Chan said in September, pointing to an article in the city’s de facto constitution, Basic Law, “which states that Hong Kong residents enjoy press freedom.”

That freedom, however, has come under severe challenge by the security law. In its most recent annual report, HKJA warned that “the media environment has rapidly deteriorated” in the past year, while the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) found that 84 per cent of respondents felt the working environment for journalism has “changed for the worse.”

Joey Siu, an activist at the Britain-based Hong Kong Watch, said that in a climate of “continuous, escalating attacks against the media,” Wednesday’s arrests were “not unexpected.”

She predicted further arrests could come early in the new year, accusing the authorities of acting during the holiday period “to minimize noise and the international community’s response.” Beijing has a long record of arresting and sentencing activists around Christmas.

One thing that is notable about Wednesday’s arrests is that they were made under colonial-era legislation banning sedition, rather than the already broad powers of the security law. Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, said the criteria for sedition “are much broader than the NSL, [and include] bringing hatred against the government or the courts, or promoting enmity between classes of Hong Kong people.”

Hong Kong’s top court recently accepted that crimes of sedition can be classed as endangering national security, thus expanding the remit of the security law, Mr. Lai told The Globe.

“The use of sedition laws implies that Hong Kong society will be further securitized by the integration of the new national security law with the many pre-existing draconian laws,” he said. “It is clear that Beijing is not content to rely on the new national security law to safeguard its power in Hong Kong, but also will use other legal measures to regulate opposition voices and create a chilling effect, especially towards the press.”

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