Hong Kong (AFP), April 11 – A veteran Hong Kong journalist was arrested by national security police on Monday for allegedly conspiring to publish “seditious materials”, police said.
The arrest is the latest blow to Hong Kong’s local press, which has seen its media freedom rating plummet as Beijing cracks down on dissent.
Allan Au, a 54-year-old journalist and journalism professor, was arrested in a dawn raid by the Hong Kong National Security Police Unit, several local media reported.
A senior police source confirmed Au’s arrest to AFP for “conspiracy to publish seditious material”.
Police later confirmed the arrest of a 54-year-old man on the same charge in a statement that did not name Au, which is a local practice.
“Further arrests may take place,” the statement warned.
Au is a former columnist for Stand News, an online news platform that was shut down last December after authorities froze the company’s assets under a national security law.
Two other senior Stand News executives have already been charged with sedition.
National security charges have also been brought against imprisoned pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and six former senior Apple Daily executives.
Once Hong Kong’s most popular tabloid, Apple Daily collapsed last year when its newsroom was raided and its assets were frozen under security law.
Shortly after Stand News was shut down, Au began writing “hello” every day on her Facebook page to confirm her safety.
One of the city’s most experienced local columnists, he was a Knight Scholar at Stanford University in 2005 and earned a doctorate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
In 2017, Au published a book on censorship in Hong Kong called “Freedom Under 20 Shades of Shadow”.
Au spent more than a decade working for RTHK, the Hong Kong government broadcaster, leading a current affairs program.
But he was fired last year after authorities declared a shake-up that began to transform the once editorially independent broadcaster into something more like Chinese state media.
– Colonial heritage law –
First drafted by the British colonial leader in 1938, sedition has long been criticized as an anti-free speech law, including by many local pro-Beijing newspapers now praising its use.
At the time of the 1997 transfer, it had not been used for decades but remained on the books.
It was dusted by police and prosecutors following massive and at times violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.
Over the past two years, sedition has been carried out against journalists, trade unionists, activists, a former pop star and ordinary citizens.
The sedition is currently separate from the sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020.
But the courts treat it as a national security offence, which means that those charged are often denied bail.
Next month, Hong Kong is expected to install a new Beijing-appointed leader, former security chief John Lee, who oversaw the police response to the 2019 democracy protests and subsequent crackdown.
When asked on Monday whether Au’s arrest would worsen press freedom, Lee declined to comment, saying only that all investigations should be conducted independently.
Outgoing leader Carrie Lam also declined to comment on Au’s arrest.