The closure of a pro-democracy news website in Hong Kong over the weekend comes amid an escalating campaign of intimidation currently under way against political activists and outspoken journalists, two prominent editors said on Monday.
Tony Tsoi Tung-ho, founder of pro-democracy website House News, announced he was closing down the site amid growing political pressure and intimidation he described as a "white terror" campaign.
"The pressure has become so bad that I feel more and more haunted every day," Tsoi wrote in a letter to readers which has now replaced all news content on his site.
"One of the most disturbing things is that my family is also coming under pressure, and they are worried about me the whole time," he said.
"I daren't switch on the TV when we're eating at home, because I don't want to discuss political questions with them, because they will just worry more and more ... which really hurts me."
Tsoi said House News, which boasted some 300,000 individual visits daily during the last month, was nonetheless unable to make money from advertising in a market already heavily influenced by Beijing.
"From a business point of view, I really can't see the dawn of House News," Tsoi wrote. "Not only have the core values of Hong Kong been twisted, the market is distorted as well."
"As a businessman who travels to and from mainland China regularly, I must admit that I feel very frightened every time I crossed the border," wrote Tsoi, who founded the website in 2012.
Tsoi has previously spoken out publicly in support of the Occupy Central movement, which has vowed to stage a civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong's downtown Central business district if the former British colony is denied fully open elections in 2017.
Former government adviser Lau Sai-leung said the website had been losing money hand over fist since it started.
"Despite our popularity, many big companies don't place advertisements on our website because of our critical stance towards the government and Beijing," he told the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper.
And House News reader Lee Ka-man, news and broadcasting professor at Hong Kong's Shue Yan University, said the site's closure was "a pity."
"Everything happened so fast, and I'm quite sad about it," she said. "As a Hong Kong reader, I think it's a great pity, because the site attracted a lot of younger readers who care about Hong Kong current affairs."
Lee said it is common in the territory for those engaged in critical forms of journalism to come under political pressure, albeit indirectly, from Beijing.
"We are in a period of unprecedented tension nowadays, and [those in the media] are trying to do their jobs in a tighter and tighter vice," Lee said.
She said Tsoi could have come under additional pressure via his business interests in mainland China.
"This has got everyone talking about a business model under which the online media can develop, because in the past, no one tried to control them," Lee said.
"In the past, people have tended to visit sites they don't have to pay for, understandably, but now everyone's talking about whether it might be worth paying out a few bucks a month for content that we like, to keep it in business," she added.
House News isn't the only independent, online media site to come under intense political pressure, however.
In a response to Tsoi's letter "post852" website, editor and founder Yau Ching-yuen agreed with the description "white terror" to describe the climate in which Hong Kong's formerly freewheeling press now operates.
"Here we have those in power in the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party using covert methods to deal with opposition forces," Yau wrote.
"The Communist Party routinely employed such methods during the Yan'an period in the 1940s, and during the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s," he said.
Meanwhile, independent media commentator Oiwan Lam told RFA that outspoken and independent news sites are commonly targeted by hackers.
"Hacker attacks, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, are a common occurrence ... and the majority of media outlets have had similar experiences," Lam said in an interview on Monday.
"A lot of journalists and media workers have also experienced surveillance," she said.
Lam said unknown people had broken into her office in 2012, and smashed her computer.
"The pressure on individuals compared with companies is much greater," she said. "Independent media is one way to mobilize the public, so there are a lot more risks involved."
Lam said many activists are increasingly relying on social media for their news.
"Facebook gives us a space to do that, and some media organizations like USP have that as their only outlet," she said.
"Small media organizations like that may not have the influence of House News, but there is still room for them to grow. But I doubt they'll ever be as effective as House News," she said.
Journalists and political commentators say Hong Kong's formerly free press is seeing its "darkest days" yet, in what is likely a harbinger of further erosion of the former British colony's traditional freedoms.
In a recent annual report, the Hong Kong Journalists' Assocation (HKJA) pointed to a series of "grave attacks, both physical and otherwise in the past 12 months," including an attack on former Chinese-language Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau, the sacking of Commercial Radio talk-show host Li Wei-ling and the removal of other prominent journalists from senior editorial positions.
It also cited advertising boycotts by major companies against Apple Daily and am730, as well as the refusal of the government to issue a free-to-air TV license to Hong Kong Television Network.
On July 1, the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in favor of universal suffrage and public nominations of candidates in the 2017 race for chief executive.
However, Chinese and Hong Kong officials have effectively ruled out public nominations, meaning that candidates will have to be elected by a committee hand-picked by Beijing.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.