Shuttered Hong Kong news outlet's editors charged with sedition

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Two senior editors of Hong Kong pro-democracy media outlet Stand News were charged with sedition and denied bail Thursday, following a raid that drew international condemnation over China's crackdown on press freedom in the city.

China has tightened its control of Hong Kong since massive and often violent pro-democracy protests engulfed the financial hub in 2019, using a sweeping national security law to clamp down on dissent.

On Wednesday, police stormed into the Stand News office, seizing phones, computers, documents and thousands of dollars.

Acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam and former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen were arrested along with five others.

On Thursday, along with Stand News' parent company, Lam and Chung were charged with conspiring "together and with other persons, to publish and/or reproduce seditious publications", according to court documents.

Among the violations listed on the charge sheet were the promotion of "hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection" against the government and the incitement of "persons to violence".

The arrests were an "act of justice", a spokesperson for the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong said in a statement, accusing Stand News of inciting secession.

Both Lam and Chung were denied bail on Thursday, prompting murmurs and tears in a public gallery packed with former Stand News employees. Their case was adjourned until February 25.

Four others arrested -- all Stand News board members who resigned in June, including pop singer Denise Ho -- were released on bail without being formally charged, according to local media.

The seventh person arrested, former Apple Daily editor Chan Pui-man, remains in custody as she is facing national security charges in a separate case.

- 'Empty and helpless' -

Chung, 52, appeared in court on Thursday afternoon, nodding to acknowledge supporters.

Lam was absent from proceedings after being hospitalised, his lawyer said.

No legal representative appeared on behalf of Stand News' parent company.

In the raid on Stand News' office, more than 200 officers were deployed with court authorisation to seize journalistic materials. Its assets of around HK$61 million ($7.8 million) were also frozen.

The outlet announced after the raid that it would cease operations.

A former Stand News reporter, who had been with the outlet since its founding in 2014, told AFP the arrests left him feeling "empty and helpless".

"We have done nothing more than reporting the facts," said the journalist, who attended Thursday's court hearing.

- 'Irresponsible remarks' -

China's foreign ministry hit out at criticism of the arrests on Thursday after the US, Canada and the EU condemned the raid and Beijing's crackdown on press freedom in Hong Kong.

"Some external forces, under the guise of media freedom, have been making irresponsible remarks about law enforcement in Hong Kong," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a briefing.

"But media freedom and freedom of speech cannot be a shield for criminal acts."

China also slapped sanctions on five US citizens in response to a US advisory on deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the raid and wider crackdown on press freedom by China and local authorities "undermine Hong Kong's credibility and viability".

"Journalism is not sedition," Blinken said.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam responded on Thursday, saying she agreed with Blinken's sentiment, but added that seditious acts "could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting".

Lam also accused Western governments of trampling on Hong Kong's rule of law by calling for charges to be dropped.

The city has been transformed after the powerful security law was imposed a year ago, with many pro-democracy activists arrested and anyone considered disloyal barred from running for public office.

Stand News is the second Hong Kong media company targeted by the authorities after pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which shut down in June after its assets were frozen under the national security law.

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