Hong Kong Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng has said that criticism from foreign politicians and organisations over the arrest of figures connected to Stand News are “baseless” and “in blatant violation of international law.” On Wednesday, the arrests and raid on the offices of the now-defunct news outlet attracted condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union as well as other countries including the US, Germany and Canada.
The seven-year old pro-democracy digital news outlet saw seven people connected to it arrested by national security police over suspected conspiracy to publish seditious materials, including its top editor, former editor-in-chief, his wife, as well as four former directors.
The police operation prompted several countries and international bodies to issue statements condemning the arrests. But on Friday, Cheng rejected their comments, saying their demands for the release of media figures was “appalling.”
“Such demands are not only a gross disrespect for the rule of law, but also are in blatant violation of international law and the basic principle of non-intervention,” she wrote in a blog post.
Freedom of speech and of the press are guaranteed in the city but are “not absolute,” and are subject to restrictions under the law, which are necessary for protecting national security and public order, she wrote. “It is indisputable that the free flow of information in accordance with the law has always been well-respected in Hong Kong.”
In response to the Stand News arrests, the UN Human Rights office said in a statement that it was concerned by the “extremely rapid closing of the civic space and outlets for Hong Kong’s civil society to speak and express themselves freely,” Reuters reported.
Over 50 civil society groups have disbanded this year, following the implementation of the national security law.
The European Union foreign service also condemned Wednesday’s police operation, saying media freedom is central to the Basic Law and one country, two systems: “The raid against [Stand News] and the arrest of seven people mark a further deterioration in press freedom in Hong Kong,” EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said in a tweet.
Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said the country is “deeply concerned” by the arrests, which included Canadian citizen and pop singer Denise Ho, one of Stand News’ former board members. “Canada will always stand up to support democracy and freedom of the press,” she wrote in a tweet on Thursday.
UK Minister of State Amanda Milling, also on Twitter, said the country condemned curtailing the city’s media freedom, as the arrests “further erode” the city’s freedom of speech.
In a statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the China and Hong Kong authorities to stop targeting the city’s independent media and to “immediately release” those who were detained and charged.
“Journalism is not sedition,” Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday. “By silencing independent media, [People’s Republic of China] and local authorities undermine Hong Kong’s credibility and viability. A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press.”
Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that that those who endanger national security “under the cover of journalism are the black sheep tarnishing… press freedom and will be held accountable in accordance with law.”
Meanwhile, advisor to the city’s chief executive Ronny Tong told RTHK that news media can choose not to interview, or omit, what interviewees – such as fugitives – said, if they do not endorse their ideas or do not wish to break the law. Echoing the government’s position, Tong said the arrests did not affect press freedom in the city.
“In my understanding, the court did not order Stand News to shut down… but they decided to stop operating,” he said. Their decision led some to “believe that it was police who shut down their website or ordered them to shutter, and affected media freedom. This view is wrong.”
Police confiscated the news outlet’s computers and HK$61 million in assets on Wednesday. By 4 p.m. the firm said it had shut down.
Stand News is the second pro-democracy outlet to fold in recent months. In June, Apple Daily – founded by media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is now in jail facing national security charges – shuttered after 26 years in operation following a round of arrests and the freezing of HK$18 million in assets.
Top editor in court
The Stand News parent company, its acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam, and his predecessor Chung Pui-kuen were charged on Thursday, with bail denied for them both.
Patrick Lam, 34, was hospitalised after his arrest due to high blood pressure, and was absent from his own bail proceedings on Thursday. Appearing in court on Friday morning, Lam told a magistrate that he understood his charges, CitizenNews reported.
He stands accused of conspiring together with the other defendants to publish or reproduce seditious publications with an intention to bring hatred, contempt, or to excite disaffection and discontent towards the authorities.
During the proceedings Lam made hand gestures resembling a heart shape and an “OK” sign towards the public gallery filled with former staffers of the now-shuttered news outlet. Lam reportedly shed tears.
Under court reporting restrictions on bail proceedings, written and broadcast reports are limited to only include the result of a bail application, the name of the person applying for bail and their representation, and the offence concerned.