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Hong Kong pro-democracy news website folds, citing rising political pressure

The front page of the House News website on July 28, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Kin Cheung

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The front page of the House News website on July 28, 2014.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Kin Cheung

HONG KONG - A popular Hong Kong pro-democracy website has closed, citing political pressure, the latest sign of mounting tensions as the semiautonomous Chinese city braces for a possible shutdown of its financial centre by activists fighting Beijing's desire to limit democratic reforms.

In a letter posted on the House News website over the weekend, one of the site's founders said he and his family were "terrified" by Hong Kong's political atmosphere.

"To act like a normal citizen, a normal media outlet and to do something right for society is not easy, it's even terrifying," said Tony Tsoi. "The ongoing political struggle makes people very anxious." He said a number of democracy advocates had been followed and smeared.

Tensions are soaring as Hong Kong becomes increasingly divided over democratic reform. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets this month to press for full democracy, while Beijing and the Hong Kong government insist candidates for the city's top leader should be chosen by a committee. Activists have alarmed Beijing with a plan to rally 10,000 people to blockade the city's financial district if authorities fail to come up with reforms in coming months that meet international standards.

Tsoi, a businessman, founded the site with three others in July 2012, in time to campaign against a government plan to introduce "moral and national education" in schools that many saw as pro-Beijing "brainwashing." Using the Huffington Post as its inspiration, the sited relied on contributions from bloggers and columnists and covered general, political, business and lifestyle news. According to Amazon's web tracking service Alexa, it was Hong Kong's 57th most popular website.

He said that while the founders set out with a normal business model and minimal budget, the site's advertising revenue was "not proportional to its impact."

The House News is not alone in feeling political and financial pressure.

Hong Kong's lone pro-democracy newspaper, the popular Apple Daily, has seen advertising pulled by clients including multinational banks HSBC and Standard Chartered. While both banks say the reasons were commercial, Apple Daily Group Director Mark Simon has said that people within the companies told him that government officials pressured them to stop advertising, which he calls "unprecedented."

Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Journalist Association said in a report that the past 12 months were "the darkest for press freedom for several decades," while international media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 61st in press freedom, a steep fall from No. 18 in 2002.

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Associated Press writer Jack Chang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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