HONG KONG — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday said the recent closure of two media outlets in the city does not indicate a decline in press freedom as the decisions were made by the outlets themselves.
Her comments came almost a week after authorities arrested seven people associated with pro-democracy online news site Stand News for alleged sedition, with the outlet then announcing it would cease operations. Days later, another online site, Citizen News, also said it would stop operating.
"For none of the media outlets, we did not do anything. They were never approached by law enforcement agencies," Lam said during a news conference Tuesday.
"But if they decided to cease operation out of their own concerns, I think this is nothing out of the ordinary." She added that Hong Kong authorities do "not seek to crack down on press freedom."
Lam said the government follows the rule of law in Hong Kong, and that when she first assumed office, she opened up government news conferences to online sites and met with the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
In response to charges that the closure of the online media indicates the "extinction" of press freedom in Hong Kong, Lam said she "cannot accept that sort of allegations."
"Nothing is more important than the rule of law," she said. She also said that as long as news outlets do not engage in illegal acts, they can continue to report news in Hong Kong.
She said there was an increase of 5.4% in local news outlets registered in the city, and a jump of 9.4% for overseas outlets since a sweeping National Security Law was enacted in the city in June 2020.
"So you cannot say that the freedom of press is eroded due to the closing of the two media outlets," Lam said.
Since the security law came into effect, over a hundred people have been arrested, including many pro-democracy activists and some journalists who previously worked for the now-defunct Apple Daily and Stand News.
On Tuesday, a pro-democracy activist and key member of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Chow Hang-tung, was sentenced to 15 months in prison after being convicted of inciting people to join a banned vigil last year commemorating the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
She was told to serve an additional 10 months of top of a current 12-month sentence she is serving for her role in the vigil in 2020, which was also banned.
Separately, Lam said the city will tighten vaccine requirements to cover not only entertainment venues but also places such as libraries, schools and museums.
The requirement will be tightened from Feb. 24, and will require those entering such venues to have at least one vaccine dose against COVID-19.
The expansion of the vaccine mandate comes days after Hong Kong reported its first omicron COVID-19 cluster, linked to several Cathay Pacific crew members who broke isolation rules and visited dining spots and bars across the city before later testing positive for omicron.
The city was largely able to keep the delta variant from causing local outbreaks through strict quarantine rules. Hong Kong currently designates all countries with local omicron outbreaks as "high-risk" countries, requiring arrivals from those countries to serve a 21-day quarantine.