Unidentified attackers hurled Molotov cocktails at the home and office of a vocal anti-Communist media mogul early Monday, the latest in a string of attacks aimed at media figures in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
No injuries were reported in the attacks, which happened shortly after 1 a.m. local time. In the first case, a hooded figure hopped out of an SUV and lobbed an ignited bottle full of flammable fluid at the gated home of Jimmy Lai, founder and owner of Next Media. The attack was captured by a closed-circuit camera in Lai’s tony hillside neighborhood.
Next Media publishes Apple Daily, a newspaper popular for its criticism of the Hong Kong administration and the Chinese central government.
At nearly the same time, officials said, someone hurled a similar flaming bottle out of a moving dark-colored sedan outside the entrance of Next Media headquarters in an industrial park about 12 miles away.
In both attacks, security guards on site put out the fires within minutes.
Hong Kong, a territory of 7.2 million people, is known for its low crime rate, and such attacks are extremely rare. The city, a former British colony, reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and is governed under a framework known as “one country, two systems” that grants it Western-style media freedoms.
Nevertheless, Lai and other media figures have been subject to attacks with increasing frequency as of late, raising concerns that free speech is under assault in the territory.
In February 2014, Kevin Lau, a former top editor of the newspaper Ming Pao, another high-circulation daily, was stabbed by assailants wielding meat cleavers after he ate breakfast at a local restaurant. The incident bore signs of being the work of Triad gangs, which operate in the territory.
Lai, who made his fortune in the clothing industry before making a foray into publishing in the early 1990s, has been the most visible financial backer of Occupy Central, the pro-democracy movement that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets last fall.
During the protests, a number of known Triad gang members were arrested after getting into physical confrontations with democracy demonstrators. Occupy participants said they believed opponents of the movement had enlisted Triad members to attack and intimidate protesters.
In mid-October, anti-Occupy demonstrators surrounded Next Media offices and disrupted delivery of the newspaper for nearly a week. Two men swore at Lai and tossed a bag of animal innards at him.
After the protests began in late September, Lai had been a regular at the Admiralty district encampment site and was often seen working under a canopy there.
Lai was also among those arrested in a sit-in in early December, when protesters sought to resist moves by police to clear the main encampment site in Admiralty. After his arrest, Lai resigned as publisher of the newspaper and chairman of Next Media, although he remains the public face of the media empire.
Apple Daily reported that Lai’s home has been subject to bomb attacks twice since 1993. Neither case was solved, and media attack cases in the city in general have a low clearance rate.
Police said they were investigating Monday’s twin attacks as arson.
“As a city that is governed by the rule of law, we don’t condone and I certainly condemn such acts,” said the city’s justice minister, Rimsky Yuen. “And I trust that Hong Kong police will do their best to investigate.”
Shirley Yam, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Assn., sharply denounced Monday’s attacks and called on police to do more to prevent such incidents and solve open cases.
“The Apple Daily and its management have been the target of a series of violent actions or threats over the past 12 months,” she said. “We are disappointed that no arrest has been made so far. We call on the Hong Kong police to take serious action against the attacks.”
“We strongly condemn any violence on any media regardless of its political stance. Some may not agree with the editorial line of the Apple Daily or its management in particular during the Occupy movement,” Yam added. “However, this should not justify any physical attack on them.”
In addition to physical intimidation of figures such as Lai and Lau, local and international journalism groups have expressed concern that Hong Kong’s once-vibrant media are being cowed by advertising boycotts, efforts by Beijing to interfere in news reporting, self-censorship by reporters, and a decision by Hong Kong officials to deny a broadcast license to an outlet perceived as critical.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong’s media freedom at 61st worldwide in 2014, a decline from 58th in 2013 and 18th in 2002. “The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media … [are] increasingly compromising media pluralism there,” the group said.
“China’s growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, which had been largely spared political censorship until recently” the group added. “Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories.”
Law is a special correspondent. Law reported from Hong Kong and Makinen from Beijing.
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