Hong Kong's security chief called on Wednesday for the city's main press association to disclose to the public who its members work for and how many of them are students, a day after he accused the group of infiltrating schools.
The comments by Secretary for Security Chris Tang are likely to deepen concern over a crackdown on civil society in the Asian financial hub after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the former British colony last year.
Tang, in an interview with the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao published on Tuesday, said the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), was infiltrating schools to recruit students as journalists.
The HKJA, responding to Tang, did not specifically mention the infiltration accusation but said that as of Wednesday it had 486 members and 56 of them were students. It does not disclose who its members work for.
Tang defended his comments on Wednesday saying he was conveying "doubts held by many in society" about the press association.
"I believe if they openly let the public know the information, it will clear their name," Tang told reporters outside the city's Legislative Council, referring to details about who the HKJA members work for.
The media industry has seen profound changes since Beijing imposed the security law last year.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a staunch critic of Beijing, is in jail and awaiting trial on national security charges. His pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily closed following police raids and the arrest of executives including its chief editor.
Scores of civic groups and opposition parties have disbanded or scaled back operations over the past year, while some of their members have been arrested and jailed.
The Professional Teachers' Union, Hong Kong's largest, disbanded this month after it was criticized by Chinese state media for "politicizing" education.
The security law, imposed after months of at times violent pro-democracy protests, punishes what Beijing broadly refers to as subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism with up to life in jail.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly said the law is only aimed at a tiny group of "troublemakers" and all law enforcement actions against individuals or groups "have nothing to do with their political stance or background."
Hong Kong's once-thriving media sector and vibrant civil society have long been features of the city that returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise of wide-ranging freedoms not guaranteed on the mainland.
Hong Kong Security Chief Demands List of Press Group Members