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Fears for Press Freedom in Hong Kong After Influential Editor Stabbed

Hong Kong Skyline - H 2013
Gavin Hellier/Jai/Corbis
Hong Kong

Kevin Lau, recently fired as chief editor of a Chinese-language daily known for its hard-hitting reporting, was knifed by unknown assailants who rode off on a motorcycle.

Kevin Lau, former editor of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, a Chinese-language daily known for its critical reporting, was fighting for his life after being stabbed in an attack that has sparked concern among journalists about the erosion of media freedoms in the territory.

Lau was fired as chief editor of Ming Pao last month, prompting a debate over censorship at what was once one of Hong Kong's most trusted Chinese-language newspapers.

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While Mainland China’s media is tightly controlled by the Communist Party, the Hong Kong media has always enjoyed a high degree of independence, even since the territory reverted back to Beijing control in 1997.

However, there is a belief that the Beijing government is trying to encroach on press freedom in Hong Kong and last Sunday (Feb. 23), some 6,000 journalists marched to Hong Kong's government headquarters to demand the city's leaders do more to ensure press freedom.

A man in a helmet attacked Lau on Wednesday morning (Feb. 26), slashing him in the back several times. The assailant rode off on a motorcycle with an accomplice.

Vital organs were reportedly wounded in the attack and Lau required an emergency operation.

The motive for the attack was unclear and it remains to be determined whether it might be a mafia attack or something more political in nature.  

Police said they had no clues so far as to who might have carried out the attack. No one has been detained.

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After Lau was fired in January, he was moved to an online subsidiary of the same media group.

He was replaced by Chong Tien-siong, the former chief editor of Malaysia's Nanyang Siang Pau, who was seen as being much more pro-establishment.

The appointment of the Singapore-based Malaysian led to complaints by most of the staff of Ming Pao. Chong is due to take up his position this week.

Chong made headlines last year when he spoke out in favor of compulsory patriotic national education in Hong Kong, an initiative that was shelved after protests by residents who said it was an attempt by Beijing to brainwash Hong Kong’s children with pro-Communist Party ideology. 

Ming Pao was co-founded by the martial arts novelist Louis Cha, but is now owned by Malaysian media mogul Tiong Hiew King through his company, Media Chinese International.

A capitalist dynamo, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy and freedom guaranteed under the territory’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law.

The territory is generally peaceful but there are occasional outbreaks of violence, sometimes linked to organized crime gangs, known as "Triads." Director Michael Bay was attacked by a man wielding an air conditioner last year, seeking to extort money on the Hong Kong set of Transformers: Age of Extinction.

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Beijing has agreed in principle for the city to hold direct elections in 2017, but no specific rules have yet been set on whether open nominations for candidates will be allowed, and the Communist Party in Beijing has resisted public pressure for full democracy.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the assault.

“HKJA urges the authorities to pursue his attackers and those malignant forces behind them without fear or favor. The attackers must be brought to justice as quickly as possible to allay public fears,” the HKJA said in a statement.

Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung expressed his “concern” and “outrage.”

“Hong Kong is a society ruled by law, and we will not allow this kind of violence,” he said in a statement. "The police will investigate comprehensively, and I also call on [residents] to provide information to the police on this case immediately, so that we can arrest the culprit responsible.”

Phyllis Tsang of the Ming Pao Staff Concern Group, told the South China Morning Post that she hoped the police can swiftly prosecute the culprit as many cases of attacks against the media in the past have ended up being unsolved.

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“This attack will damage perceptions of Hong Kong as a safe city and its reputation for media freedoms,” she said.

There are occasional attacks on media outlets, journalists and indeed media owners in Hong Kong.

Last year a car rammed the front gate of the home of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Hong Kong's popular anti-Beijing newspaper, the Apple Daily, and a man then placed an axe and a machete on the driveway.

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club Hong Kong also issued a statement, saying it was shocked by the news.

“We urge the Hong Kong police to treat the incident with the utmost urgency, and to find and prosecute the culprits. The Club reiterates its view that the growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration. Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished,” the statement said.