A vocal pro-democracy website in Hong Kong shut down on Wednesday after police raided its office and arrested seven current and former editors, board members and a journalist in a continuing crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Stand News said in a statement that its website and social media are no longer being updated and will be taken down. It said all employees have been dismissed.
The website was one of the most vocal pro-democracy news outlets in Hong Kong after the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily ceased operations earlier this year.
More than 200 officers were involved in the search, police said. They had a warrant to seize relevant journalistic materials under a national security law enacted last year.
The arrests took place early Wednesday under a colonial-era crimes ordinance for conspiracy to publish a seditious publication, and searches of their residences were underway, police said. Those convicted could face up to two years in jail and a fine of up to HK$5,000 (€570).
According to the local South China Morning Post newspaper, police arrested one current and one former editor at Stand News, as well as four former board members including singer and activist Denise Ho and former lawmaker Margaret Ng.
Police did not identify those who were arrested.
A Facebook post early Wednesday morning on Ho's account confirmed that she was being arrested. A subsequent message posted on her behalf said she was okay and urged friends and supporters not to worry about her.
That post drew nearly 40,000 likes and 2,700 comments, mostly from supporters.
Early Wednesday, Stand News posted a video on Facebook of police officers at the home of a deputy editor, Ronson Chan, where they were investigating the alleged crime. Chan, who is also chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), was taken away for questioning, the organisation confirmed in a statement.
Chan, who was later released, told media the police seized his electronic devices, bank cards and press card.
The crackdown on dissent had seen police raid the offices of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, seizing boxes of materials and hard drives to assist in their investigation and freezing millions in assets that later forced the paper to cease operations.
Police charged former Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai with sedition on Tuesday.
Stand News said earlier this year that it would suspend subscriptions and remove most opinion pieces and columns from its website due to the national security law. Six board members had also resigned from the company.
The HKJA urged the city's government to protect press freedom in accordance with Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
“The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) is deeply concerned that the police have repeatedly arrested senior members of the media and searched the offices of news organisations containing large quantities of journalistic materials within a year,” it said in a statement.
Benedict Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the non-governmental organisation Hong Kong Watch, said the arrests are “nothing short of an all-out assault on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong.”
“When a free press guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law is labelled ‘seditious,’ it is a symbol of the speed at which this once great, open, international city has descended into little more than a police state,” he said.
Wednesday's arrests also followed the removal of sculptures and other artwork from university campuses last week. The works supported democracy and memorialised the victims of China's crackdown on democracy protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.