Hong Kong welcomed its newest batch of pro-Beijing lawmakers in the Legislative Council Monday, after an election held without opposition candidates, as the editors of one of the city’s last remaining pro-democracy news outlets announced their impending closure.
It was the latest moment in a long series of events in the past year that showed how the local government was reshaping Hong Kong, with Beijing’s backing, in an effort to stamp out opposition and dissent in a city once renowned for its freedoms of expression.
The founders of news outlet Citizen News said Monday that although they had not been contacted by the Hong Kong national security police, the current environment in the financial hub is such that they are unclear if their reporting could be considered as violating the law. The news site will stop publishing on Jan. 4.
“We all love this place, deeply. Regrettably, what was ahead of us is not just pouring rains or blowing winds, but hurricanes and tsunamis,” Citizen News said in a statement on Sunday, when it originally announced their impending closure.
The U.S. and other Western government have condemned diminishing media and civil freedoms that Beijing promised to uphold for 50 years following Hong Kong’s 1997 handover from Britain.
But Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam last week defended the raid on Stand News, telling reporters that “inciting other people … could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting.”
The only remaining pro-democracy news outlets in the city is Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language news outlet, and Initium, a Chinese-language news outlet which had moved its headquarters to Singapore in August, but still has staff in the city.
Citizen News likened itself to a small dinghy in rough waters.
“At the centre of a brewing storm, we found (ourselves) in a critical situation. In the face of a crisis, we must ensure the safety and well-being of everyone who are on board.”
Citizen News is the third news outlet to close in recent months, following pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and online site Stand News.
The outlet was founded five years ago in 2017 by a group of veteran journalists. While small, they focused on political news and analysis pieces, as well as investigations.
The space for doing those type of stories has shrunk since China’s central legislature imposed a national security law in Hong Kong in 2019 following massive anti-government protests. As authorities stepped up arrests of political activists, civil rights groups and unions disbanded, and some activists fled. Independent media has been one of the more prominent casualties of the ongoing crackdown.
“What we understood about press freedom has changed a lot,” said Chris Yeung, founder and chief writer at Citizen News. “What’s the line between, say, freedom and what the government has always emphasized responsibilities or obligations like upholding national security, public order, etc.”
The impending closure of Citizen News came days after authorities raided Stand News and arrested seven people — including editors and former board members — for allegedly conspiring to publish seditious material. Stand News announced on the same day that it would cease to operate.
Two of Stand News’ former editors who were arrested were later formally charged with sedition.
In the summer, authorities forced the closure of Apple Daily, the newspaper owned by media tycoon and democracy activist Jimmy Lai. Lai is currently in jail and was newly charged with sedition last week.