Hong Kong (CNN Business)Hong Kong authorities are defending the arrests of seven people linked to a pro-democracy publication in the face of growing international condemnation, with the city’s leader insisting the police raids had “nothing to do with journalistic or media work.”
More than 200 police officers raided the offices of Stand News on Wednesday, seizing journalistic materials and arresting current and former senior staff members associated with the independent news website. Among the seven was Cantopop star and pro-democracy activist Denise Ho, a former Stand News board member who was arrested at her home.
In a statement Thursday, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said the raids had been “purely enforcement work,” and refuted claims they endangered freedom of press or speech.
“Hong Kong is a society where we have rule of law. We have to maintain our rule of law just as we have to maintain national security and social order,” she said. “We are not targeting any particular media organization with any particular stance. What we target are activities that contravene the law.”
Police also froze about 61 million Hong Kong dollars ($7.8 million) worth of Stand News’ assets. National security police said the arrests were connected to multiple “seditious” articles published by the outlet between July 2020 and November 2021.
Shortly afterward, Stand News announced it had ceased operations and would remove its online presence within days — the latest pro-democracy voice to fold under the growing pressure of Beijing’s crackdown in the city.
Since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong last year, pro-democracy groups have dissolved, activists and journalists have been arrested, and the long-standing pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily has shut down.
“Journalism is not sedition,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement on Wednesday, urging authorities to release those arrested. “Freedom of expression, including media freedom, and access to information provided by an independent media are critical to prosperous and secure societies.”
“By silencing independent media, PRC and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability,” he continued, using an acronym referring to the People’s Republic of China.
EU spokesperson Peter Stano also posted a tweet criticizing the arrests and raid as proof of “further deterioration” of press freedoms in Hong Kong.
“Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are central to the Basic Law and the ‘1 country 2 systems’ principle,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution and the arrangement which had given Hong Kong its semi-autonomous status.
Other governments, including Canada and Taiwan, have also denounced the arrests.
“We are alarmed by continued crackdown on civic space, [including] today’s arrest of 6 media workers at Stand News,” said the UN Human Rights Office in a statement. “We urge the authorities to ensure that further proceedings fully respect rights to freedom of information, expression & association, as well as due process.”
Lam alluded to those responses to the crackdown in her statement Thursday, adding: “Western media organizations and foreign governments are making comments without understanding Hong Kong’s law and all the evidence.”
In a press statement Thursday, the city’s government also maintained that freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected under law.
“However, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute,” the statement read. “According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, such freedoms can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security. We reiterate that no one is above the law.”