February 26 2014 started like any other day for veteran Hong Kong journalist Kevin Lau. He was getting out of his car in the northern part of the city to have breakfast at his usual restaurant when he was accosted by two men on a motorbike.
It was at that point things took a dramatic turn. The men pulled out at meat cleaver and attacked Lau, leaving him with severe injuries to his legs and back.
For many journalists in Hong Kong, there was no doubt that Lau’s journalism had made him a target.
Lau had been the editor of a critical Chinese-language daily newspaper Ming Pao, and during his time there had collaborated on an investigation that exposed the hidden offshore assets of some of China’s ruling elite.
Lau was fired from his post shortly after the investigation was published, and a month later he was attacked.
The incident only served to stoke further fears among journalists and international press freedom organisations about the dangers journalists were facing, amid a growing Chinese influence on the city’s mainstream media.
Two men from the mainland have since been jailed for the attack, but those who ordered it remain at large.
Continuing the quest for press freedom
For Lau, though, the attack has done little to deter him from pursuing the same hardline journalism he is known for. Instead, it’s only seemed to spur him on further, as it was from his hospital bed that the 52-year-old and a few other prominent journalists started to develop the idea of launching an online website dedicated to critical, citizen-led news.
“There’s been a lot of influence on the media from Beijing,” Lau tells Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF)
“We were worried about the future so we said, ‘we should try to do something about this’. That was the very beginning of the whole story.”
The Chinese-language not-for-profit Citizen News launched on January 1 this year, with the aim of providing in-depth reports, data journalism and context to news that’s published online.
The editors, which include a number of senior journalists who have worked in the mainstream industry, announced the project with a firm mission: “In a time of chaos, we must distinguish right from wrong; when society is restless, we must stick to reason and fairness; inside the storm, we must maintain autonomy with professionalism,” they said.
Chaotic media storm
Chaos and storm are just two of the ways to describe what’s been happening in Hong Kong’s media industry over the past few years.
After the British gave the city back to China in 1997, it was promised a special level of autonomy from the mainland under a ‘one country, two system’ rule, giving it economic and political freedom, as well as a free press.
But in recent years that independence has been under threat as Beijing has been seeking to expand its influence in the region. As a result, Hong Kong’s mainstream media, which once acted as a watchdog to what was happening in the mainland, is now battling to fend off the pressure to toe a pro-Beijing line.
And if recent cases are anything to go by, that pressure has been growing more intense. The city’s largest and most prominent English-language daily South China Morning Post has faced some of the harshest criticism.
Up until last year, it was owned by Robert Kuok, a Malaysian billionaire with extensive business links in China. In 2012, the paper hired Wang Xiangwei, its first editor from the mainland, and under his editorship, the paper was accused of censoring China sensitive stories to keep Beijing happy.
But journalists say the situation at the paper has deteriorated further since it was brought by one of China’s wealthiest business tycoons, internet billionaire Jack Ma, and his company Alibaba at the end of of 2015.
Most notably it was accused of burying news of the Panama Papers, in which many of China’s elite were named.
Shirley Yam is a veteran Hong Kong journalist who writes a column for the paper.
She told DCMF: “Even before the new owner, things were bad. Columnists were asked to send copy before it was published and those working on China stories would have their stories tampered with.”
Ownership of news outlets by business conglomerates with huge investments in China is just one of the issues affecting Hong Kong - freedom to express critical views on what's happening in the mainland is also becoming more difficult. One of the most troubling cases was the disappearance of five booksellers last year who sold works critical of Chinese leaders. The men later appeared in China, amid a series of televised confessions of illegal book trading and promises that they wouldn’t publish such books again.
Other recent cases include the University of Hong Kong seeking an injunction to bar journalists from revealing details of its governing council meetings. The situation has become so bad that a recent survey of 1000 journalists revealed that 85 percent think press freedom has deteriorated between 2015 and 2016.
Yam says: “The controlled, tightening atmosphere of freedom of expression is done with sticks and carrots. Even though press freedom is protected by law, the subtle pressures being placed on independent, critical voices means that many are self-censoring.”
But Lau says that while the situation appears challenging for the mainstream press, online is where much of the resistance is emerging.
Over the past few years, journalists have been reacting to the situation by launching independent news sites with a citizen-led funding model.
One such site is the Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language not-for-profit that launched two years ago.
Lau, who invested some of the money that was donated to help track down his attackers into Citizen News, says: “While I am afraid the pressure and challenges will continue, I’m not too pessimistic because if Hong Kong were to remain an international financial centre, you have to have a degree of the free flow of information and that creates the space where an independent press can operate.
“As long as the internet is there, I can see opportunities and room for development. It may be gloomy for the mainstream media, but online there is a future.”
Yam shares some of Lau’s optimism about the future, adding: “As long as Beijing continues to flex its muscle on the free press and freedom of expression, we will continue to fight.”