A Hong Kong court on Friday sentenced two men to 19 years in prison for the attack on journalist Kevin Lau Chun-to. The brutal knifing, of which the mastermind has still not been identified, came at a time when Beijing is increasingly bearing down on the island, and was seen by many as an attack on Hong Kong's freedom of the press. At the same time, Lau himself has noted that Hong Kong's press has a certain resiliency, which most recently can be seen in the emergence of start-up news agencies that aim to provide independent reporting.
Wong Chi-wah and Yip Kim-wah, both 39-years-old, were found guilty on August 13 of "causing grievous bodily harm" and stealing a motorcycle in the attack on Lau, which took place nearly one and a half years ago on the morning of February 26, 2014. Presiding judge Esther Toh said the assault was a "brazen attack on the rule of law in Hong Kong" and that journalists should be protected by the law, according to news reports.
Lau, an executive at a media company and the former editor of the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao, was getting out of his car after parking it in a residential area in Hong Kong when a man wearing a helmet, whom the Hong Kong police through CCTV footage would later identify as Wong, approached him and hacked him six times with a meat cleaver, according to news reports. Lau sustained severe cuts to his back and legs.
Lau saw the assailant hop onto a motorcycle driven by another person, whom the police later identified as Yip, and the men fled the scene, according to news reports. That afternoon, Wong and Yip took the train to Shenzhen, Hong Kong's nearest mainland port of call.
On March 8, the mainland police apprehended the two men and later handed them back to Hong Kong police. In a trial earlier this month, the two men testified that they had been tortured and forced to confess while being held in the mainland, according to news reports. Yip told the jury that mainland police officers said to him, "The central government is very serious about the case. It must have someone admitting to it," according to news reports.
The men, however, had earlier told the police that they were each promised 100,000 Hong Kong dollars, or $12,900, to carry out the attack, according to news reports. They refused to say who had offered the money.
After unsuccessfully applying for legal aid, Wong and Yip hired three prominent lawyers from a private law firm. Experts following the case, including Hong Kong University law professor Eric Cheung T. M., have questioned how the men, who claimed to be plumbers, were able to afford such legal fees, according to reports.
It is still unclear whether the attack was linked to Lau's journalism, but Lau said he could not think of any other reasons. In a statement in Ming Pao responding to the sentencing, Lau called on the police to identify the mastermind of attack. Commenting on the Hong Kong police's failure to identify the persons who gave the order after 18 months of investigation, Chief Inspector Lam Siu-wah said, "The police will not close a case like this. We will pursue the responsible parties and bring them to justice," according to reports.
Even without a clear motive, the brutal attack on Lau has come to symbolize the extent to which press freedom in Hong Kong has deteriorated. While violence against journalists used to be rare in Hong Kong, the number of cases has risen in recent years. In its 2014 edition of Attacks on the Press, CPJ documented the worsening reporting environment faced by Hong Kong journalists, much of which has to do with the increasing pressure China has exerted on the press in Hong Kong.
Shortly before the attack, Lau had been dismissed from the editorship of Ming Pao, a paper known for investigative reporting and which, under Lau's stewardship, had published articles that exposed the offshore holdings of China's political elites, a particularly sensitive topic among the Chinese leadership. Lau was replaced by Chong Tien-siong, a Malaysian editor who had previously expressed pro-Beijing views. In February, Ming Pao staff protested Chong's decision to shift an article about the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 to a less prominent position in the paper, and replace it with an article about a fund for young entrepreneurs in Hong Kong sponsored by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.
Despite all this, Lau remains optimistic. In an interview with The New York Times early this year, Lau said he believed idealistic young journalists, new forms of media, and public pressure could sustain the vibrant journalism for which Hong Kong has been known.
He might be right.
On August 18, the founder of FactWire , veteran journalist Ng Hiu-tung, announced that he had successfully raised 3.5 million Hong Kong dollars, or about US$450,000, from 2,040 donors using a crowdfunding platform. Ng describes the bilingual news agency FactWire as "an investigative news agency founded by the Hong Kong public" whose primary value is "public interest." Ng said he would not accept donations given for political reasons.
In June, also after a successful crowdfunding campaign, freelance journalist Tom Grundy launched the English-language news site Hong Kong Free Press. Grundy said the city "desperately needs a fresh, critical voice in English" and HKFP's goal is to "fill the void."
And this month, a new Chinese-language website, Initium Media, was launched in Hong Kong with the stated goal to "provide neutral, free, and professional news to the Chinese community around the globe." Jia Jia, a veteran journalist from mainland China, is now an editor for Initium in Hong Kong. Asked whether he thinks Initium will be able to maintain its independence, Jia told CPJ, "Press freedom in Hong Kong is clearly deteriorating; no media can guarantee itself that it will never be influenced. The only thing we can do is to hold on to it until we can't."