‘Yellow’ outlet or trailblazer? The rise and fall of Hong Kong’s Stand News

Chris Lau, South China Morning Post

Posted at Dec 30 2021 07:33 PM

The writing was on the wall for Stand News after the national security police crackdown that led to the closure of Apple Daily back in June over the tabloid-style paper’s pro-protest and anti-China reporting.

Weeks ago, Hong Kong’s security chief accused Stand News of biased reporting, and on Wednesday morning, the online news portal favoured by opposition activists and supporters was finally brought to its knees.

The publication, which rose to prominence for its nimble, on-the-ground live-streamed coverage of the 2019 anti-government protests, has been a go-to source of news for those drawn to its opposition-leaning stance.

Stand News supporters have lauded it as a trusted source for investigative reporting on off-limits topics that conventional news outlets shunned. Recent reports include a story on officials allegedly receiving gift hampers from embattled developer China Evergrande.

“With the closure of Apple Daily and changes to RTHK, the phenomenon has become all the more obvious,” said media scholar Francis Lee Lap-fung, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Lee was referring to the newspaper owned by media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, which folded in June after police hit him and six other senior staff with national security charges, freezing its assets.

The other case cited by Lee centred on the city’s public broadcaster RTHK, which has undergone a drastic reform by the government. Both news outlets were followed extensively by opposition supporters during the social unrest in 2019.

Stand News – one day shy of its seventh anniversary had it not announced its closure on Wednesday – has also ruffled the feathers of Hong Kong officials and state media over the years.

Shortly before it shut down, Chief Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu, responding to questions on the earlier arrests of six Stand New staff members, denounced “rotten apples” and “evil elements” among journalists, accusing such individuals of exploiting their status as members of the media to further political agendas.

At the start of this month, Secretary for Security Chris Tang Ping-keung called a Stand News report, which accused prison authorities of invading inmates’ privacy with its new “smart prison” technology, “biased” and “misleading”.

State tabloid Global Times has also likened Stand News to Apple Daily, labelling it a “yellow outlet”, the colour associated with protesters.

On Wednesday morning, police converged on the homes of six Stand News directors and senior staff members, arresting them for conspiracy to print or distribute seditious materials, a colonial-era offence punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of HK$5,000 (US$641) under the Crimes Ordinance.

The publisher later announced it would shut down all operations for good, after police also froze HK$61 million worth of its assets.

On Wednesday morning, police converged on the homes of six Stand News directors and senior staff members, arresting them for conspiracy to print or distribute seditious materials, a colonial-era offence punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of HK$5,000 (US$641) under the Crimes Ordinance.

The publisher later announced it would shut down all operations for good, after police also froze HK$61 million worth of its assets.

Founded by entrepreneur Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, alongside ex-chief editors Chung Pui-kuen and Yu Ka-fai, on December 30, 2014, Stand News was seen as a reincarnation of its predecessor House News.

Then dubbed the city’s answer to the Huffington Post in the US, House News rode on the rise of online press outlets, offering a variety of opinion pieces. It too was not without controversy, with traditional media outlets taking issue with its operations – centred on citing other reports without sending its own journalists for coverage.

Lee, from CUHK, said the product then was initially not popular among opposition supporters.

Just before the Occupy movement in 2014, a teary Tsoi abruptly announced that House News would shut down, citing financial woes and political pressure he implicitly suggested was from Beijing.

But just months after the announcement, the portal was given a reboot and a second life as Stand News, carrying the political stance it would in later years be well-known for.

“At that time, Stand News wasn’t so prominent,” Lee said.

But as the internet became more prevalent as a source for news, the portal, supported by crowdfunding, gained from its online presence and the perception that such a medium faced less censorship than conventional media, according to Lee.

Stand News was at its zenith when it covered the anti-government protests that gripped Hong Kong for months in 2019. Lee attributed its popularity partly to the live-streamed coverage style.

“It had the mobility that traditional television crews didn’t have and was able to follow protests that would materialise at a random place and time,” he said.

Stand News’ most-viewed live stream drew 3.8 million viewers, when it covered the attack on train passengers and protesters by a white-clad mob at Yuen Long MTR station on July 21 that year.

A report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found one in four people surveyed in Hong Kong accessed Stand News on a weekly basis in 2020, compared with one in 10 in 2018.

Lee said the portal never shied away from fundamental values, such as the pursuit of democracy, an emerging trend for online media which often sought to strike a balance between neutral reporting and exhibiting a moral code.

Such positioning appeared to be problematic for Stand News, whose board of directors formerly included veteran democrat and ex-lawmaker Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, as well as singer Denise Ho Wan-see, both among those arrested on Wednesday.

As a precautionary measure, six directors had already accepted suggestions to resign from their posts in June following the closure of Apple Daily. The news portal also shelved most of its past opinion pieces and sacked staff who had worked for more than six months, a bid to offer them severance payment, then rehiring them on new contracts.

Lee said when press outlets such as Stand News were willing to pursue thorny issues, this had a ripple effect on other agencies.

“When these issues get reported by them, other outlets may think it is safe to run such stories, and feel confident to follow suit,” he said.

The city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) said it was deeply concerned over the arrests of the six, a sentiment also reflected by the Democratic Party and Hong Kong Democracy Council, a US-based group.

“These actions are a further blow to press freedom in Hong Kong and will continue to chill the media environment in the city following a difficult year for the city’s news outlets,” a statement from the FCC read.

But Kenneth Fok Kai-kong, a newly elected lawmaker from the publication sector under Beijing’s “patriots-only” shake-up of the political system, called for calm, saying Hong Kong remained a place with the rule of law, and that police were only taking action in accordance with legislation to safeguard national security.

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