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Two former senior editors arrested in a Hong Kong police crackdown on a pro-democracy media organisation have been charged with conspiring to publish seditious material, according to authorities.

Authorities on Wednesday froze the assets of Stand News as about 200 police officers raided the office of the online media outlet and detained seven current and former senior editors and former board members.

Media advocacy groups and some Western governments – including the United States, Canada and the European Union – criticised the raid and arrests as a sign of further erosion of press freedoms since China imposed a sweeping national security law in the former British colony last year.

The National Security Department of the police said in a statement it had laid charges of conspiracy to publish seditious material against two men and an online media company.

“The other arrestees are being detained for further enquires,” the department said in a statement.

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While it did not identify the two or the company, a charge sheet filed at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court and seen by Reuters news agency identified them as former Stand News chief editor Chung Pui-kuen and Patrick Lam, acting chief editor.

The same charge of conspiring “to publish and/or reproduce seditious publications” was levelled against Best Pencil (Hong Kong) Limited, the organisation behind Stand News.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with the promise that wide-ranging individual rights, including a free press, would be protected.

But pro-democracy activists and rights groups say freedoms have been eroded, in particular since China imposed the new national security law after months of at times violent pro-democracy protests.

Hong Kong’s government denies that and its leader, Carrie Lam, said on Thursday the action against Stand News was aimed at seditious activity, not the suppression of the media.

“These actions have nothing to do with so-called suppression of press freedom,” Lam told reporters. “Journalism is not seditious … but seditious activities could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting.”

‘Black sheep’

Set up in 2014 as a non-profit organisation, Stand News was the most prominent remaining pro-democracy publication in Hong Kong after a national security investigation this year led to the closure of jailed tycoon Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily tabloid.

Stand News shut down hours after the raid and all of its employees were dismissed. Its website was not accessible on Thursday and its London bureau chief, Yeung Tin Shui, said on Facebook his office had also closed.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to immediately release those arrested.

Lam, referring to Blinken’s call, said that would be against the rule of law.

In Beijing, meanwhile, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian hit out at “irresponsible” criticism of the arrests.

“Some external forces, under the guise of media freedom, have been making irresponsible remarks about law enforcement in Hong Kong,” he said in a briefing, adding that it “wholly confuses right and wrong, and misleads public opinion.”

Beijing’s main representative office in the city, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, said Stand News was an “out-and-out political organisation” that “kept publishing articles that incited others to use violence and even split the country”.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s Hong Kong office said support for press freedom was being used as an excuse to disrupt stability in the city.

“Those who engage in activities that endanger national security and undermine the rule of law and public order under the cover of journalism are the black sheep tarnishing the press freedom and will be held accountable,” it said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera

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