Crackdown on Press Freedom in Hong Kong

Ed note. I am pleased to welcome Nathan Yeo to UN Dispatch. Nathan Yeo is a blogger focusing on global freedoms and conflict. He studied history at Dartmouth College and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

Several thousand black-clad demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong this past week to protest for press freedom following a brutal machete attack on prominent former newspaper editor Kevin Lau Chun-to. An unknown assailant slashed Lau in the back and legs on the morning of February 25 before escaping on a motorcycle. Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, known for his investigative reporting, reportedly summoned police himself and has since been upgraded to stable condition in the hospital.

Students and journalists joined in Victoria Park to protest a growing trend of assaults on Hong Kong media figures, unfurling banners reading “They Can’t Kill Us All” and “Freedom from Fear.” Lau is not the only recent victim — two men beat iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping with batons last year and a stolen car recently crashed into the gate of Apple Daily chief Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. The driver left a machete and ax in Lai’s driveway.

Gangland style attacks are not the only problem facing Hong Kong journalists, as fears of mainland and Party disapproval have impacted advertising sales at some media outlets and perhaps even editorial stances at others. Prominent radio host and China critic Li Wei-ling was dismissed, prompting her to accuse Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying of tampering with the station’s contract renewal to force her out. Government officials also denied a television license for a start-up even after its own committee advised the channel would promote competition.  Lau himself was removed as chief editor at Ming Pao in a January event that sparked its own blacked protests. Under Lau, Ming Pao had launched investigations into the death of a mainland dissident and joined with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to examine offshore accounts in Caribbean tax havens held by relatives of the Chinese political elite, including President Xi Jinping. Lau moved to an online publication affiliated with Ming Pao, while his replacement was viewed as less confrontational towards Mainland China.

With Hong Kong scheduled for elections in 2017, the current trend is very worrying for the relative civil freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. Reporters Without Borders listed Hong Kong as 61st in its press freedom rankings last year, down from 18th in 2002. A vibrant media with multiple viewpoints and the ability to hold the government accountable is essential to a functioning democracy. Hong Kong journalists have demonstrated tremendous resolve in the face of terror, but economic and political pressure may have begun to erode their distinctive freedoms. If police cannot apprehend these machete-wielding thugs and both local and national officials continue to impede the growth of an independent media, Hong Kong serious test of its freedom even before the democratic process can begin.