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Stand News editor Patrick Lam is arrested in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021.Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Police in Hong Kong have arrested seven people connected to independent media outlet Stand News – the latest crackdown against the press in a city once known as a hub for journalism in Asia.

More than 200 police officers were deployed for the operation Wednesday morning, authorities said in a statement. The seven were arrested for sedition under a colonial-era ordinance.

The police operation came a day after several former employees of defunct pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily, along with owner Jimmy Lai, were also hit with new sedition charges.

Among those arrested Wednesday were Margaret Ng, a prominent lawyer and former pro-democracy lawmaker, and pop star and activist Denise Ho, both of whom sat on the board of Stand News. Former chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and acting chief editor Patrick Lam were also taken into custody. Mr. Chung’s wife, former Apple Daily associate editor Chan Pui-man, was also officially arrested at the women’s prison where she has been remanded since July, facing charges of collusion with foreign forces.

Ms. Ho is a Canadian citizen, and Conservative MP Garnett Genuis tweeted early Wednesday that Canada should issue a “swift and emphatic response” to her “arbitrary detention.”

Police said in a statement that they had searched at least six residences, as well as the Stand News offices. Unlike the arrests, the searches were carried out under the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in mid-2020. It has been used to power a sweeping crackdown against civil society that has led to dozens of organizations disbanding and the arrest or exile of almost every prominent opposition activist.

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

That did not prevent the publication from coming in for harsh criticism, however, from both local officials and Beijing-controlled media outlets in Hong Kong. Earlier this month, Security Secretary Chris Tang accused Stand News of “biased, smearing and demonizing” reports about a smart prison initiative.

Mr. Tang has also repeatedly criticized the Hong Kong Journalists Association, whose head, Ronson Chan, is a deputy assignment editor at Stand News. In a speech at the HKJA’s annual gathering Tuesday evening, Mr. Chan said the city “needs both truth and reporters.”

He was among several Stand News employees detained Wednesday but was released without charge. He told reporters that police had seized his electronic devices, press card and bank cards.

“Stand News has always reported the news professionally – this is without doubt and everyone knows that,” Mr. Chan said. “Whatever crime will not change this fact.”

Hours after the arrests, the publication said in a statement that it was shutting down: “Acting Editor in Chief Patrick Lam has resigned and all Stand News employees are dismissed.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced the arrests as an “open assault on Hong Kong’s already tattered press freedom, as China steps up direct control over the former colony.”

CPJ’s Asia program co-ordinator, Steven Butler, said the authorities must “drop all charges against them immediately if Hong Kong is to retain any semblance of the freedoms that its residents enjoyed only a few years ago.”

In a speech after the raids, however, Hong Kong Chief Secretary John Lee, the city’s No. 2 official, intimated more prosecutions could be on the way.

People who “abuse journalism as a tool to endanger national security” are “evil elements” who “damage and pollute press freedom,” Mr. Lee said, urging other reporters to distance themselves from Stand News.

It was notable that Wednesday’s arrests were made under colonial-era legislation banning sedition rather than the already broad powers of the national security law. Eric Lai, a Hong Kong law fellow at Georgetown University in Washington, said the criteria for sedition are much broader 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 and Mail.

“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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