Hong Kong media outlet Citizen News has said its decision to shut down was prompted by the authorities’ crackdown on fellow independent newsroom Stand News, which abruptly closed last Wednesday after national security police arrested seven people and raided its offices.

Addressing reporters the morning after the shutdown was announced, Chris Yeung, chief writer of Citizen News, said that the outlet could no longer gauge where the “legal boundaries” were.

Daisy Li and Chris Yeung of Citizen News address reporters on January 3, 2022. Photo: RTHK/Facebook

“We cannot rule out [the possibility] that our reports or articles in the past few years” have broken laws, Yeung said on Monday.

He added that the outlet had not been approached by law enforcement, but that he heard “directly and indirectly” that online media outlets were being targeted.

“Journalists are people too. [They] also have family and friends… it’s very hard to carry on like this,” Yeung said.

Citizen News said on Sunday night that it would be closing to protect the safety of its staff, citing “drastic changes in society and the worsening of the media environment.”

Daisy Li, the outlet’s chief editor, told reporters on Monday that Citizen News’ two nightly episodes – a broadcast by its China news team and a Hong Kong-focused round-up – will air as scheduled. They will be the final episodes of the regular series.

The news website will cease updates on Tuesday, and its team of around 40 staff will be dismissed.

When asked for a response to the closure by HKFP, the Security Bureau did not say whether it welcomed the move. “Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are protected under the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights,” a statement said.

“However, freedom of speech and freedom of the press are not absolute, and can be restricted for reasons including protection of national security,” it said, adding that everyone must abide by the law, including the national security law.

‘No other choice’

Founded in 2017 on the back of a successful crowdfunding campaign, Citizen News was one of Hong Kong’s few remaining independent media publications. Its financial independence, Yeung said, allowed the outlet to pursue critical investigations into corporate and government wrongdoing.

The outlet has been recognised by journalism bodies for its in-depth coverage. In 2019, Citizen News won two Human Rights Press Awards – one for an interactive piece about the July 21 Yuen Long MTR attack during the protests, and another for an explanatory feature on police officers hiding their identification numbers to allegedly escape accountability.

Citizen News’ in-depth reporting page includes a feature on the two-year anniversary of the Polytechnic University siege during the protests and an investigation into a deadly fire at a storage unit in 2016.

“If we continue, we can’t report on the news we want to report. There is no other choice but to stop,” Yeung, formerly the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), said.

“For those who are being seen as critical or troublemakers, they are more vulnerable,” he added. “So this is what we are facing and that’s why we made the decision in the midst of those uncertainties.”

Li, a media veteran who led the online division of Taiwan’s Apple Daily, said she was not confident that she would be able able to lead her team of reporters given the shifting red lines in the media environment.

“We cannot grasp whether a story or an article or a sentence contravenes a law under the newly changed environment,” adding that suspending the outlet is the “responsible decision” to make.

In a statement released on Monday, the HKJA said it is “heartbroken” and regrets the closure of the two media outlets within a week.

“Hong Kong is hailed as ‘Asia’s world city’ with freedom of information and freedom of the press. If more media outlets halt their operations, the damage to Hong Kong’s reputation will be hard to estimate,” the HKJA wrote, adding that it thanks Citizen News’ journalists for their work the past five years.

Third news outlet to fold

Citizen News is the third outlet to close down in Hong Kong in less than half a year. Last June, pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily shut after authorities raided its headquarters and arrested top editors and directors. On its last day, Hongkongers across the city queued to buy their final copies of the 26-year-old newspaper.

Calvin, 27, reads a copy of Apple Daily’s last edition in Mong Kok on June 23, 2021. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Last Wednesday, seven people linked to Stand News were arrested in an early morning police operation. The outlet announced in the afternoon that it would shut down, and by 11 p.m., its website and social media pages had been wiped.

In a statement about Stand News’ fate, press group Foreign Correspondents’ Club said: “These actions are a further blow to press freedom in Hong Kong and will continue to chill the media environment in the city following a difficult year for the city’s news outlet.”

Two ex-editors of Stand News – Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam – were charged with allegedly conspiring to publish seditious publications the next day.

On Friday, the justice chief said that foreign criticism of the arrests was a breach of international law. Meanwhile, the city’s Chief Secretary John Lee fired back at an editorial piece written by Wall Street Journal about the Stand News’ shutdown.

“The arrests have nothing to do with the freedom of the press,” Lee wrote, criticising the news agency for “wrongfully” claiming that the charges were “trumped-up” and that the freezing of assets was “without due process.”

Police hauled out boxes from Stand News’ office on Wednesday. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The closure of Citizen News and Stand News leaves InMedia Hong Kong as the oldest independent online outlet in Chinese.

Speaking to HKFP on Monday after an oath-taking ceremony for new lawmakers, Tik Chi-yuen – the only non-pro-establishment figure who was elected – said he “expects” the government to explain “their actions.”

He stopped short, however, of saying that the Stand News arrests created a “chilling effect” that led to Citizen News’ decision to close.

‘Self-inflicted’ demise

In a Monday report about Citizen News’ closure, state-controlled Wen Wei Po called its demise, as well as the fall of Stand News and Apple Daily, “self-inflicted.”

The Communist party mouthpiece also cited an incident in October, when the Security Bureau singled out Citizen News’ article for “misleading” readers. The independent outlet said that Security Secretary Chris Tang had “refused to guarantee” freedom of speech under Article 23 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that the Hong Kong government shall enact laws to prohibit treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the central government.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.