Two senior editors of Hong Kong media outlet Stand News were charged with "conspiracy to publish seditious" material on Thursday, police said, following a raid that drew international condemnation.
China has tightened its control of Hong Kong since massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests engulfed the city in 2019, and suppression of the local press has also ramped up.
Police burst into the Stand News office in the latest crackdown on Wednesday, seizing phones, computers, documents and thousands of dollars. Its acting editor-in-chief Patrick Lam was brought handcuffed to the headquarters during the search.
The Hong Kong Police's National Security Department said in a statement that "two men, aged 34 and 52 respectively, and an online media company" had each been charged "with one count of conspiracy to publish seditious publication".
The men charged were Lam and former editor-in-chief Chung Pui-kuen along with Stand News's parent company Best Pencil Limited, according to court documents.
Lam and Chung were arrested on Wednesday along with five others.
The Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong termed the raid an "act of justice" and accused Stand News of inciting secession.
"Bringing the relevant Stand News personnel to justice is a matter of 'the wicked getting what they deserve' and has nothing to do with freedom of the press," a spokesperson said in a statement.
More than 200 officers were deployed to search the Stand News office with court authorisation to seize journalistic materials.
Its assets of around HK$61 million ($7.8 million) were also frozen, with senior official Steve Li saying it was one of the largest sums authorities have ever locked by the police's national security unit.
Stand News announced after the raid that it would cease operations.
'Journalism is not sedition'
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was among a host of foreign government officials who condemned the raid and Hong Kong's wider crackdown on press freedom.
"Journalism is not sedition," Blinken said.
"By silencing independent media, PRC and local authorities undermine Hong Kong's credibility and viability," he added, referring to the People's Republic of China.
"A confident government that is unafraid of the truth embraces a free press."
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Thursday said she agreed with Blinken's sentiment that "journalism is not sedition" but added that seditious acts "could not be condoned under the guise of news reporting".
Lam accused Western governments of trampling on Hong Kong's rule of law by calling for charges to be dropped.
"These actions have nothing to do with so-called suppression of press freedom or so-called suppression of democracy, as some would put it," she said.
Stand News is the second Hong Kong media company targeted by the authorities, after pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily -- which shut down in June after its assets were frozen under the sweeping national security law.
© 2021 AFP