The head of a cutting-edge Hong Kong media empire has blamed the ruling Chinese Communist Party for a cyberattack on one of his newspapers, as the organizers of a ballot on universal suffrage in the former British colony extended the voting period following a similar attack.
The websites of the Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan were inaccessible for much of Wednesday after a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, Next Media chairman Jimmy Lai said.
DDoS attacks seek to disable a website by subjecting its server to an overwhelming number of demands to access the site.
The cyberattack, which follows a similar attack on the website of the Occupy movement campaigning for universal suffrage in 2017, is seen by Lai as evidence that Beijing wants to silence public support for the movement ahead of an unofficial poll on Hong Kong's future scheduled to begin on June 20, the English-language South China Morning Post reported.
"There is no cause to be afraid," Lai, whose paper has openly supported the movement, told reporters. "We will carry on with what we have been doing, with multimedia news, instant news."
"Don't be scared, everyone. Come out and vote on June 22," he said.
Lai, who has locked horns with Beijing in the past, said the Apple Daily's editorial stance would remain unchanged after the attack, which began several days ago.
The Occupy ballot asks respondents to choose between three different options for the selection of candidates in the 2017 race for chief executive, all of which involve some form of public nomination.
However, Beijing has strongly opposed any form of public nomination of candidates, suggesting that only candidates approved by a hand-picked committee will be allowed to run.
The Occupy ballot has now been extended for another week to allow time for all those who tried to register and couldn't, to try again.
Robert Chung, Director of the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme and organizer of the Occupy vote, said the poll's computer systems had been overwhelmed by the attacks, which have been reported to the police.
"This is a form of technological violence," Chung said. "I can't see in what way the platform we built—a tool for peaceful expression—was illegal."
"I don't understand it," he told a news conference on Wednesday.
Occupy Central founder Chan Kin-man said the website had managed to register more than 20,000 voters ahead of the poll, in spite of the DDoS attacks.
"You can imagine, that the only reason we have had so few is because of these hacker attacks," Chan said. "We are very disappointed about this."
He said the attacks appeared to be very well organized and technically competent.
"Of course they are trying to silence the voices of Hong Kong people," Chan said. "They want to stop people from saying no to fake elections."
Political affairs commentator Poon Siu-to said the proximity of the attacks on the poll site and the Apple Daily suggested they were linked.
"If we're not even allowed to use such methods to fight for what we want, it would be better to bring the whole dispute out onto the streets to sort it out," Poon said. "But that would cause social disorder."
"That's why I believe that the people behind these attacks or those who ordered them ... are trying to incite chaos in Hong Kong," he said.
"They don't want Hong Kong to prosper, or to be stable."
The attack on the Apple Daily site comes after reports last month that HSBC and Standard Chartered banks had pulled advertising from the newspaper following pressure from Beijing, although the banks later said it was a commercial decision.
Attacks on the press
Lai has been the target of apparent intimidation attempts, amid a string of violent attacks on the more outspoken members of Hong Kong's formerly free-wheeling press.
In March, Hong Kong Morning News vice-president Lei Lun-han and news controller Lam Kin-ming were attacked on a street in the Tsim Sha Tsui commercial district by four men wielding iron bars.
And in February, former Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau was seriously injured by two men wielding meat cleavers, prompting an outcry by local journalists' associations over intimidation of the press.
Hong Kong's 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, largely by controlling the selection process for candidates.
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 Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.