HONG KONG – In February, Hong Kong journalist Kevin Lau was stabbed by two men as he was getting out of his car. The trial of two suspects is about to begin and many believe Lau was targeted because of his work as editor of the Ming Pao daily newspaper.
Lau’s attack raised the alarm on restrictions to press freedom in Asia. Freedom of the press is a proxy for individual liberty. If a government cannot tolerate media criticism, it’s unlikely to stomach citizen protests, criticism from individuals or even an individual’s right to meet with others and discuss government problems.
Lau, who is now learning how to walk again, spoke in a videotaped interview that aired Sunday at the New.Now.Next media conference in Hong Kong, organized by the Asian American Journalists Association Asia chapter and Hong Kong University’s Journalism & Media Studies Centre. Lau called on police to continue investigating who ordered the attack. Here is a video of Lau’s interview, produced by Hong Kong University’s journalism center.
His attack shook many in Hong Kong, where press freedoms are protected, unlike China. In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, Chinese government imprisoned dozens of dissidents, according to an AP news story. China does not allow public discussion of the 1989 protests, when soldiers killed hundreds of democracy protesters. Imagine if the U.S. government imposed a blackout of media coverage on Sept. 11 anniversary coverage. (Hong Kong media, which is protected by freedom of the press provisions, covered the anniversary extensively.)
Attempts to muzzle the press have only grown with China’s economic power. Last year, Bloomberg chose not to publish critical stories about the family wealth of Chinese leaders, according to a New York Times news report. Contrast that with The New York Times, which also pursued stories on wealth network around Chinese official families – and won a Pulitzer Prize. New York Times websites were blocked in China after a critical story ran in fall 2012.
Chinese officials had ordered some companies to stop buying Bloomberg subscriptions after earlier coverage. Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief Matt Winkler said, according to the New York Times report, that he pulled back on coverage to maintain access for reporters in China.
Thailand is now taking a page from Chinese restrictions on media. Steve Herman, a Bangkok-based bureau chief for Voice of America, said Thai soldiers have appeared in newsrooms to censor media following the military coup in May. (Here is an AP news story on the latest developments in Thailand.) There is now more press freedom in Myanmar than in Thailand, Herman said.
Even in Japan, historically a beacon of free press in Asia, the parliament recently passed a bill to protect government secrets. Here is a description of the bill from The Economist.
The restrictions across the continent are especially troubling as the rest of the world relies on these journalists for fair and accurate coverage about issues of global concern: the Thai military coup, the incompetent cleanup of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan and the grappling for islands between China and Vietnam, and China and Japan.
Michael Forsythe, a former Bloomberg reporter now with The New York Times in Beijing, urged reporters in Hong Kong to produce journalism that holds government accountable and to blow the whistle if they are pressured to suppress stories. The public’s job is to hold publications accountable.
To read more about press freedom in Asia, check out the N3Con recap of the session about threats to press freedom in Asia.