Medical staffs escort former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau on a stretcher in a hospital in Hong Kong after last month's attack. Pic: AP.

Brutal assaults highlight worrying erosion of media integrity

Before the People’s Republic of China opened its doors to outsiders, Hong Kong used to be the keyhole through which the world peered into the vast, yet little known, country. After that it remained a place where journalism could thrive. But there are worrisome signs that being a journalist in the former British colony is becoming increasing difficult, if not dangerous.

On February 26, Kevin Lau, former chief editor of the Ming Pao daily, was stabbed in public by one assailant who then fled on a motorbike driven by a second individual. He is now recovering from serious injuries in a local hospital. Being slashed was the second piece of bad news that hit him in a few weeks; the month before he had already been sacked as chief editor of his paper. The Ming Pao daily is owned by  Tiong Hiew King, a Malaysian tycoon who reportedly has large economic interests in mainland China.

The new editor – who seems likely to be Chong Tien-siong, the former chief editor of Nanyang Siang Pau - will not enter the most friendly newsroom in the world: over 90 per cent of the paper’s editorial staff have signed a petition asking the company to explain why Mr Lau was sacked. Sin Wan-kei, a member of the concern group which was formed to demand explanations, told the South China Morning Post that “the chief editor not only leads the newsroom in reporting, but more importantly in resisting pressure from the invisible hands who try to meddle in the newsroom at critical moments.” He added: “We know nothing about the future chief editor, including his background and values. We are not even sure if he will help us to fight against the interference.”

In the aftermath of the attack, a joint statement issued by Hong Kong media organizations sounded the alarm bell for press freedom in the city. “Hong Kong is a society that upholds the rule of law, and we do not tolerate the spread of violence. We are worried that the incident will pose a threat to the freedom of press and speech in Hong Kong. We are very angry about it,” it read.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association wrote that it “urges the authorities to pursue his [Kevin Lau’s] attackers and those malignant forces behind them without fear or favour. The attackers must be brought to justice as quickly as possible to allay public fears.”

Just a few weeks later, however, a new assault was reported. On March 20, two executives of a yet-to-be-launched newspaper were ambushed by four men wielding metal pipes. Just as it had happened in the case of Lau, the attack took place during the day. The victims were Lei Lun-han, vice president of Hong Kong Morning News Media Group Ltd, and Lam Kin-ming, who works as an executive for the same company.

Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) denounced the episode on its website. “The FCC condemns the latest attack on senior figures in Hong Kong’s media industry, which comes less than a month after the brutal stabbing of former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau,” it wrote in an online statement.

“After the attack on Kevin Lau, who remains in hospital with grave injuries, this latest incident only underscores the deepening shadows being cast over the media landscape in Hong Kong from violence, intimidation and interference by political and commercial interests.”

This is not the first time that journalists have targeted in the city, but the rapid sequence of events has rattled the industry and sparked fears that the local media could be following a dangerous path, to the point that even Chris Patten – the city’s last British Governor – spoke about recent developments. After praising the professional life of Mr Lau, Mr Patten argued that the attack “may have more to do with his courage and integrity as a journalist, which would be deeply worrying.”

Unfortunately, it seems that concerned comments are spot-on. This year’s World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, ranks the Hong Kong at 61 in terms of press freedom in the world, down from 58 last year and 54 in 2012. And the trend is all the more disquieting when one takes the long view. In 2002 Hong Kong ranked 18th worldwide, a position which now – after assaults and fears of increasing pressure on the part of Beijing – seems a very distant memory.