Hong Kong is not a city afraid to protest. In addition to the annual pro-democracy march that took place on 1 July, the last 12 months have seen Hongkongers take to the streets demanding justice for everyone from dock workers to domestic helpers.
Over the last fortnight, protests like these have made more news than usual. Nearly two weeks ago, on 23 February, 6,500 people armed with banners and loudspeakers marched through Hong Kong’s streets calling for freedom of the press. Just four days later, Kevin Lau, the recently ousted editor of a popular and respected daily newspaper, was attacked in broad daylight by two men armed with a meat cleaver. With Lau still in hospital, double the number that marched on 23 February took to the streets the following Sunday.
The mood of this most recent protest was sombre, a reflection of the city’s feeling towards the violent attack on Lau and that against Hong Kong’s media. Since 2002, Hong Kong has fallen 43 places in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, where it now sits in 61st place. A city that has historically prided itself on free media, free speech and a freedom to protest, Hong Kong is bearing witness to those freedoms slipping away.
Removed from his position at Ming Pao newspaper in January and replaced by an editor thought to be more pro-Beijing, Lau’s story is among the most blatant examples of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s media. But according to some local journalists, the true attacks come in more subtle forms: headlines are changed and photos cancelled if senior government officials or prominent business tycoons put in a call.
The two men who attacked Lau are thought to have been triad members, hired after anger at Ming Pao’s investigation into mainland corruption. Of course, the Hong Kong government and its leader – the increasingly unpopular CY Leung – have pledged to find those responsible for the attack but this response is not enough. While the stifling of the city’s media landscape can easily be blamed on mainland influence, it’s Hong Kong’s executive that is ultimately responsible.
Under the special “One country, two systems” principal that shapes the city’s relationship with China, Hong Kong has the right to determine its own media rules. While Beijing may imprison dissident journalists and make life hard for foreign media outlets that question the Communist party, Hong Kong should be standing up for the freedoms that encourage international broadcasters and liberal local publications to set up offices here.
Having previously been one of freest media landscapes in Asia, Hong Kong has cultivated generations of journalists who have spoken their minds. It’s up to the government to protect its unique media population against the influence and intimidation of Beijing, long before it gets to the stage where an editor pops to the shops on a Wednesday morning and ends up in intensive care.
Aisha Speirs is Monocle’s Hong Kong bureau chief.