The former editor of a Hong Kong newspaper whose ouster sparked press freedom protests was seriously injured following a knife attack outside a restaurant in the former British colony on Wednesday, according to officials.
Police said that Kevin Lau, former editor-in-chief of the Ming Pao, was attacked in Hong Kong's Chai Wan district as he got out of his car in broad daylight, by two unidentified men wielding meat cleavers.
His ouster, together with other high-profile staffing changes at major news organizations in recent weeks, have prompted journalists and rights groups in Hong Kong to protest against what they say is self-censorship meant to avoid angering Beijing.
Lau, who was known for hard-hitting political reporting, will need extensive surgery on his lungs and legs following the attack, which involved a deep wound to his back and two to his legs.
"One of them alighted from the motorcycle and used a chopper to attack the victim," police spokesman Simon Kwan told reporters.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman said Lau was in critical condition.
Hong Kong lawmaker Regina Ip told Agence France-Presse that the men "chopped him so hard that people could see his internal organs," citing a conversation with Lau's wife Vivian Chan.
Call for justice
Media groups called on police to pursue Lau's attackers.
"The attacker is not only targeting at the media sector, but also challenging the rule of law and security of Hong Kong through attacking Lau under broad daylight," the HKJA said in a joint statement with eight other media and journalists' groups.
"We do not tolerate the spread of violence," said the statement, whose signatories included the Ming Pao Staff Concern Group and the newly established press watchdog, the Independent Commentators' Association.
"We are very angry about it [and] strongly urge the police to seriously handle the case, and arrest the suspect as soon as possible," it said.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC) issued a similar warning.
"Hong Kong's reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished," the FCC said in a statement on its website.
"The growing number of attacks against members of the press in Hong Kong needs to be taken seriously by the local administration," it said.
Hong Kong, which has traditionally enjoyed freedom of speech and association, dropped three places in a global press freedom index to 61 out of 180 last year.
The territory's chief executive C.Y. Leung vowed to bring the attackers to justice.
"Hong Kong is a society that abides by the law and by the rule of law," Leung told reporters on Wednesday. "We will certainly not tolerate such acts of violence as this."
But security chief Lai Tung-kwok said it was too early to come to any conclusions about the motivation behind the attack.
"We will have to wait for the police investigation," Lai said.
The attacks come after several thousand protesters marched to government headquarters in Hong Kong last weekend amid increasing concern among journalists that fear of angering Beijing is hampering the territory's media.
Journalists who joined the rally warned of a "darkening climate of self-censorship" against a backdrop of physical violence and interference by officials and corporations.
Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) chairwoman Sham Yee-lan told the rally that "somebody" wants to rein in Hong Kong's media and to "punish disobedient journalists."
Liberal scholars are barred from appearing in some papers, headlines critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government are removed, while "sensitive" photos are edited from papers before they go to press, the HKJA said in a recent statement.
Veteran Hong Kong political commentator Willy Lam said Lau had been a widely respected editor who had a reputation as a political moderate among his colleagues.
"The Ming Pao has exposed a number of unflattering stories about certain high-profile individuals and companies in recent years," Lam told RFA's Mandarin Service.
"I'm guessing that this has to do with his exposure of some darker news stories from Hong Kong and mainland China," he said. "I think it does have to do with press freedom in Hong Kong."
And veteran journalist Ching Cheong, who was imprisoned by the Chinese authorities from 2005-2008 on charges of spying for Taiwan, said he thought the attack was a form of retaliation for the protests sparked by Lau's removal in January.
"I believe it has to do with the reaction around his sacking not long ago, but without more complete evidence I don't want to make a hasty conjecture," Ching said.
Lau was removed from his post in January and later replaced by an editor from Malaysia seen as less challenging to Beijing, prompting protests by staff who said the paper's editorial independence was under threat.
Under Lau's editorship, the Ming Pao had run several reports on the death in police custody of veteran Chinese dissident Li Wangyang, who the authorities claim committed suicide.
Last June, employees of the tabloid Apple Daily newspaper, and the publisher of a magazine that published outspoken coverage of stories across the internal border in mainland China, suffered a number of physical attacks, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said at the time.
The growing concerns over press freedom come amid a political debate over universal suffrage.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, allows for full universal suffrage to take place in 2017 and 2020, and this clause was confirmed in an interpretation by China's parliament, which has ultimate power in the matter, in 2007.
But many analysts expect Beijing to back away from universal suffrage for 2017, and for legislative elections in 2020.
Recent public polls have shown the majority of Hong Kong's citizens are in favor of more democracy, but the territory's pro-democracy politicians have remained divided on the practicalities of such an election.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Fung Yat-yiu for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.