HONG KONG: Thousands took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against threats to press freedom in the city, days after a former newspaper editor was attacked with a cleaver in broad daylight. The protesters rallied outside the Hong Kong’s government headquarters to also voice support for press freedom amid growing concern over Beijing’s influence in the media.
Kevin Lau, former editor of the investigative Ming Pao newspaper, was left in a critical condition after Wednesday’s brutal attack, seen as highlighting warnings from international watchdogs that the city’s media independence is in jeopardy as Beijing seeks tighter control.
Organizers said that 13,000 people including journalists, activists and lawmakers marched in the swiftly organized rally, although police put the turnout lower at 8,600.
Protesters dressed in black waved banners declaring “They can’t kill us all” as they condemned the vicious assault on Lau, urging police to solve the case quickly and saying journalists would not be swayed by violence.
Police have not established a motive for Lau’s stabbing although suspicions have spread that powerful individuals from mainland China or pro-Beijing allies opposed to the city’s push for full democracy may have had a hand in the attack.
“We need to tell the evil power that your knife is not going to deter us,” Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association told reporters outside the government headquarters, before marching to the city’s police department to deliver a petition with 30,000 signatures.
Ronan Chan, a 21-year-old journalism student, told AFP: “I still want to be a journalist. I won’t be affected by the incident… A place without freedom of speech is not a civilized society.”
Lau’s condition improved on Saturday when he was transferred out of an intensive hospital unit to a private ward, greeting journalists with a defiant hand gesture.
A recorded sound clip by Lau played through loudspeakers at the rally declared: “Violence wants us to be afraid. If we are afraid, we will lose freedom. I hope all journalists believe there is justice.”
“People should not take freedom for granted. We cannot assume it will never change. It takes everyone to guard it,” he was heard to say.
The attack on Lau provoked shock in a city known for its safety, leading Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, to stress that freedom of speech will be protected in the financial hub.
But one of Leung’s daughters, Leung Chai-yan, sparked an online row after voicing doubt over the attackers’ motive, according to South China Morning Post.
“What does the attack have anything to do with press freedom?! Come on people,” she wrote on her Facebook page, drawing criticisms from netizens who accused her of cold blooded comments.
A police investigation into the incident is underway but no arrests have been made so far in what authorities called a “triad-style” attack.
A similar march held the previous week prior to Lau’s attack drew 6,000 people protesting at several high-profile incidents seen as aimed at stifling the free press, including the removal of Lau as editor of the liberal Ming Pao, allegedly for being unsympathetic to Beijing. Police put the count for that march at 1,600.
Earlier this month the international Committee to Protect Journalists said media freedom in Hong Kong was “at a low point,” citing self-censorship among reporters, financial and physical threats against the media and legislative steps that could hinder investigative reporting.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also said in a report that Hong Kong’s media independence was “in jeopardy,” as China flexes its muscles to stifle critical coverage.
Certain pro-Beijing lawmakers also attended Sunday’s rally, local broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
Lawmaker Chiang Lai-wan was quoted by the broadcaster as saying that violence against journalists cannot be tolerated regardless of political ideals.
Kevin Lau Chun-to, who until recently had been chief editor of Ming Pao, a Chinese-language newspaper known for its investigative reports, was stabbed in the back and legs several times by a man in a helmet on Wednesday. The assailant rode off on a motorcycle with an accomplice. No one has been arrested in connection with the attack.
“We’re not going to bow to the intimidation,” said Shirley Yam, vice-chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association, one of the organizers of the protest. “That’s the strong message we want to send whoever it is that the Hong Kong media is going to stand firm and do whatever’s best for press freedom and the right for our citizens to be informed.”
Organizers put the number of demonstrators at 13,000, while police said there were 8,600 at the peak.
Lau left the intensive care unit of the hospital on Saturday, although his wife said his recovery would take time.
“The reality is the wounds he suffers are deep and serious. His road to recovery will be a long and winding one,” his wife Vivien said in a statement.
A week earlier, some 6,000 people protested in the Asian financial center demanding the city’s leader uphold media freedoms.
In recent years, Hong Kong journalist and rights groups have warned of mainland Chinese propaganda officials influencing newsrooms, deepening ties between Hong Kong media bosses and Beijing, greater censorship, and the dismissal of influential liberal journalists.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, is a freewheeling capitalist hub which enjoys a high degree of autonomy and freedom, but Beijing’s Communist Party leaders have resisted public pressure for full democracy.
Lau was recently replaced at Ming Pao by a Malaysian Chinese journalist with suspected pro-Beijing leanings, causing a revolt in the paper’s newsroom where journalists suggested the publication’s independence might be undermined.
The new editor, Chong Tien-siong, attended the protest on Sunday and was quoted in local media as saying he was impressed with the turnout and hoped police could find the culprits soon.
The United States and European Union have expressed concern over the assault on Lau and diplomats in Hong Kong said it underscored fears that the city’s freedoms were being eroded, concerns echoed more broadly across the city.
“It seems there is more interference from the Hong Kong SAR government and the central government in Beijing. Political interference seems to be more serious nowadays,” said Ip Kin-yuen, legislative councillor who represents the education sector.
The Hong Kong section of the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which was released on Thursday, identified “limitations on freedom of the press, self-censorship and incidents of violence against the media” as areas of reported concern.
Media outlets have periodically been subject to attacks in Hong Kong. The offices of a small independent media outlet were recently ransacked and a car rammed the front gate of the home of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Hong Kong’s popular anti-Beijing newspaper, the Apple Daily.
Asked by reporters about concerns China would seek to limit the scope of elections for Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017, a senior Chinese government spokesman said Beijing and Hong Kong both wanted to see universal suffrage for that vote.
“We hope all sides in Hong Kong can rationally and pragmatically discuss this issue and form a consensus,” said Lu Xinhua, spokesman for the largely ceremonial advisory body which advises parliament and whose annual session opens on Monday.
Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong in September ruled out open nominations for candidates to become its next leader.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Simon Cameron-Moore)