Press freedom at stake: ‘Who’ can’t kill us all?

Press freedom at stake: ‘Who’ can’t kill us all?

(Image: Straits Times)

Thousands of media professionals and ordinary citizens organised a demonstration two weeks ago to denounce the attack against Kevin Lau Chun-to, the former chief editor of Ming Pao, who was stabbed in the back and legs on February 26. The rally, with the slogan ‘They can’t kill us all’, was an illustration of the magnifying effect that frustration over the recent brutality towards one of the city’s most prestigious journalists and the deterioration of press freedom have had on each other in Hong Kong.

The attackers remain unidentified and the motive remains a matter of speculation, and those who have rushed to the conclusion that the attack on Lau was an attack on freedom of the press have so far failed to establish a definite connection between the two things.

“Indeed, I cannot agree to link the incident to politics or freedom of the press, let alone to the Chinese Communist Party, at this early stage”, said a senior editor from another news organization affiliated to Media Chinese International Limited, the parent company of Ming Pao.

However, the seemingly knee-jerk reaction was the result of more than just a pique. The lack of evidence does not impair the strong correlation between the lack of confidence in Hong Kong’s current state of freedom of the press and the mounting anxiety among the public after Lau’s attack.

It is apparent that the deteriorating level of press freedom has reinforced some of the suspicions circulating after the attack. According to the 2013 annual report of the Hong Kong Journalists Association on freedom of expression, Dark Clouds on the Horizon, press freedom is “under attack” from both Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying’s administration and the Chinese Communist Party.

Only one month prior to the attack, Ming Pao’s owner moved Lau away from the chief editor’s position, and the rumor widely spread that the paper was bending to political pressure from the Chinese government. “When Lau was the chief editor of the paper, Ming Pao covered issues that ‘offended’ the chief executive, politicians, capitalists and even the authorities in Beijing,” said a journalist on Ming Pao’s China desk. “It is counterintuitive to say the violence against the head of Hong Kong’s arguably most critical newspaper had nothing to do with those factors.”

Conversely, the attack brought attention to concerns about self-censorship, which has become a thinly veiled threat curtailing press freedom. Lau’s experience is far from isolated; the case reminded the public of recurrent assaults aimed at intimidating journalists and media practitioners, such as Chen Ping, then-proprietor of iSun Affairs Weekly, who was ambushed by masked men in 2003, and Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, chairman of Next Media and publisher of Apple Daily, who was threatened by a stolen car ramming into the front gate of his house. The common denominator in these cases, which is what concerns journalists and the public, is that even if the police were to find the perpetrators, the backstage manipulators would likely remain unknown.

Reckless violence could lead to a ‘chilling effect’, making every journalist in Hong Kong hesitant to pursue stories that are relevant to the public interest. According to Doreen Weisenhaus, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong specializing in media law, the real concern is “the escalation in self-censorship, which has been going on for quite some time”.

It is the interaction between the bigger picture of press freedom in Hong Kong and the implications of the attack on Lau that keeps the situation simmering and has attracted attention across the political spectrum. “I think some of the marches are not necessarily to get the answers, but to bring public awareness to their (the media industry’s) concerns,” Weisenhaus said. “And I think a lot of the public were shocked when they knew what happened to Kevin Lau and suddenly they were saying, ‘Wait a second, maybe there is an issue here that concerns us as well.'”

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