HONG KONG — A brutal attack on a Hong Kong editor has heightened fears that one of Asia’s freest journalist communities is under systemic assault.
On Wednesday morning, two men on a motorbike hacked the former chief editor of Ming Pao newspaper with a meat cleaver in broad daylight outside a restaurant he frequented.
The victim, Kevin Lau, had been ousted from his post in January, in a controversial decision to replace him with an editor perceived as more loyal to Beijing. He was in critical condition on Thursday.
Traditionally the region’s most respected Chinese-language newspaper, Ming Pao is sometimes described as the “New York Times of Hong Kong.”
To understand how the attack is being received locally, Americans might imagine former New York Times chief Bill Keller being demoted for political reasons, and then deliberately rammed with a car outside a Starbucks.
Ming Pao was purchased in 1995 by a Malaysian billionaire who has extensive business interests in mainland China.
The paper has offered $1 million Hong Kong dollars ($130,000) for information about the attackers.
The identity and motive of the assailants is unknown. Public violence is so rare in Hong Kong that many reporters see the stabbing as the most violent in a series of dramatic and escalating blows against the city’s vibrant, free press tradition.
Earlier in February, the popular radio commentator Li Wei-ling, an outspoken critic of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, was sacked. She claimed that local officials had pressured her employers, Commercial Radio, to dismiss her.
Meanwhile, last June, thousands of copies of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily were burned by three masked men. A few weeks earlier, the publisher of an investigative magazine was beaten by baton-wielding men. Neither of these crimes have been solved.
As for Lau, his friends believe that politics, not personal grudges, were behind Wednesday’s hit.
Far from being a radical, Lau was largely regarded as a moderate and cautious editor by activists in Hong Kong. Some speculate that Ming Pao’s recent publication of a report on Chinese officials’ overseas assets spurred Lau’s removal.
“Personally, I have known Kevin now for more than 10 years,” says Ivan Choy of the City University of Hong Kong. “According to my knowledge, he is a man of integrity, and so he will not involve in some kinds of personal disputes or personal scandals. So I believe if there is an attack it is about these political factors or media factors.”
Though free press and free speech are constitutionally protected under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, many observers believe that Beijing is worried that the city is becoming radicalized against the Communist Party leadership, and is trying to quietly bring the media to heel.
“If it’s just one event, people can always say it’s just a personal thing, but when it’s three or four happening in rapid succession, and when the target is one of the few daring media figures in Hong Kong, the pattern is very clear and very worrying,” says Francis Lee, a researcher on press freedom at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“The independent and critical media personnel in Hong Kong are under attack.”
A recent report by the French organization Reporters Without Borders echoes this sense of a growing threat. In the organization’s latest press freedom assessment, Hong Kong ranked number 61 in the world, plummeting from 18 in 2002.
“China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, which had been largely spared political censorship until recently,” the report said.
“Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories, which are either ‘special administrative regions’ or claimed by Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its ‘Liaison Office’ is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.”
In the last two months, Hong Kong journalists have begun to organize and demonstrate in defense of press freedoms.
Dozens of Ming Pao reporters wore black on Thursday, and the newspaper changed its front page logo to black. On Twitter, many Hong Kong journalists changed their photos to an icon saying, “They Can’t Kill Us All.”
Last Sunday, thousands of protesters marched in defense of a free press in Hong Kong. In a speech at the event, Sham Yee-lan, chairperson of Hong Kong Journalists Association, argued that all defenders’ of the city’s civil liberties should be concerned.
“The truth is you — the people of Hong Kong — will be the next victim,” she said.
“Control of the media is the vital step to controlling people´s minds.