LONDON - The closure of three news outlets within days of each other highlights the rapid decline of Hong Kong's independent media, analysts say.
In announcing their closures Tuesday, the news websites Citizen News and Mad Dog Daily both cited concerns for the safety of staff after raids and arrests at other outlets.
The pro-democracy news website Stand News ceased publishing after more than 200 police officers raided its newsroom on December 29. The raid was part of a sedition investigation, police said last week.
Hong Kong's use of sedition and national security laws have been condemned by international bodies including the United Nations, which said last week it was alarmed by the 'crackdown on civic space.'
At least 100 people, including protesters and dissidents, have been arrested under the guise of the security law and at least 50 civil society groups have disbanded in the past 18 months.
"We have the complete dismantling initiative by the government. Not just of the free press, independent press but the entire civil society," Lokman Tsui, a digital rights researcher and former assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's journalism school, told VOA.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Law, however, rejected criticism that the national security law and the sedition investigation at Stand News are a sign that press freedom faces "extinction."
At a weekly news conference on Tuesday, Lam said those arrested are falling afoul of laws and endangering national security.
But media critics who spoke with VOA say the climate for journalism is changing.
Hong Kong media is confused over what is allowed to be published, said Michael Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong and columnist for Citizen News.
"No one knows which story will make someone in power unhappy and ... harass journalists through other charges or to crush the entire media outlet."
Mo moved to Britain in July, where he claimed political asylum over concerns that his political beliefs and involvement in protests could result in arrest.
He told VOA he wasn't surprised that Citizen News had followed in the footsteps of Stand News.
"There may be more independent or small online news channels or independent journalists [that decide] not to publish," he said.
Critics and troublemakers beware
For the independent Citizen News, which was founded in 2017, "the trigger point was the fate of Stand News," the outlet's chief writer Chris Yeung told reporters on Monday.
"The implications are clear that the overall media is facing an increasingly tough environment, and for those who are being seen as critical or troublemakers - they are more vulnerable,' Yeung said. 'We could not rule out that we might be exposed to some risks."
Chief Editor Daisy Li added, "We haven't changed, the climate of Hong Kong has. We can't be sure if our words will break the laws - and we need to be responsible to our journalists."
Former opposition politician Raymond Wong, owner of Mad Dog Daily, said the website's reputation for critical coverage could put staff at risk.
Wong, who is in Taiwan, cited concerns for staff, saying on YouTube, "I am in a safer place and criticize [the Hong Kong government] on a daily basis, but they have to worry about their lives every day."
At least four news outlets have closed since the national security law came into force in June 2020, prohibiting acts deemed as subversion, secession and foreign collusion.
Sedition is not among the offenses listed under the security law but authorities have turned to colonial-era ordinances to target those who are allegedly guilty of seditious acts.
The first to close was pro-democracy news website Apple Daily, which shuttered after several executives were charged under the national security law and authorities froze the company's assets.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, who has been in jail on a range of charges since December 2020, now faces three outstanding charges under the security law and could be facing life in prison.
Authorities filed an additional sedition charge against Lai and his staff the same week as the dawn raids on Stand News.
The wide application of laws has added to the sense of caution.
Five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were arrested last year for allegedly "conspiring to publish seditious materials." Authorities claimed that sheep characters featured in children's books were inciting hatred toward the government.
"These tiny things can trigger the government already, and they have powerful tools at their disposal to lash out, including freezing assets of the news organizations, arresting the editors, journalists and the owners," researcher Tsui said.
Tsui, who is now based in the Netherlands, said the press is supposed to be a "watchdog" but that the government is trying to create its own narrative.
"If your job is to say black is black and white is white, but the government is keen on saying black is white and white is black ... then you're at risk for being seditious, for threatening national security and so on," he said.
As well as the closures, journalism groups have criticized changes at the city's only public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which they say is damaging its editorial independence.
Tsui believes Hong Kong's media environment is becoming closer to that of China's, where outlets are tightly controlled by the state.
It is a move that is "scary not just for Hong Kong but for the entire world," said Tsui. "China has been a black box ... Now this tiny glimpse, this peek in the window, is closing down now. Hong Kong is slowly turning into a black box.