Journalists in Hong Kong have hit out at an injunction barring them from broadcasting secret recordings of a meeting of the University of Hong Kong (HKU)'s governing body.
The university applied for the injunction and called on Commercial Radio, which broadcast two secretly made recordings from a meeting of the HKU Council in which some members rejected liberal scholar Johannes Chan as a candidate for a high-ranking managerial post.
The recordings emerged after Chan was rejected for the top university post of pro-vice-chancellor earlier this year, amid fears that HKU had caved in to political pressure exerted by Beijing.
"These recordings were released to the media by an insider precisely because ... the usual checks and balances had failed," the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), which has warned of deteriorating press freedom in the city since its 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
"This matter is one of public interest," the association said.
The HKJA also hit out at the reaction of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying over the leaked recordings.
"This association cannot agree with the chief executive's description of [the leak] as an immoral act," the group said in a statement on its website.
Call to rescind
Journalists' groups including the HKJA have lodged a petition calling on HKU to rescind its application to the territory's High Court for an injunction.
"The injunction sought would undoubtedly restrict the freedoms of speech and of the press in Hong Kong," the petition said, adding that the HKU Council's secretive behavior had "deepened doubts" that political inference was involved in Chan's rejection for the role."
"The Council has hidden behind the confidentiality rules and refused to explain why it did not accept the sole candidate recommended by a search committee," the petition said.
Barrister and former Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong said the injunction would likely affect only Commercial Radio, and wouldn't seek to prevent other media from using the recordings.
"If other media take it from the public domain, rather than from someone under the confidentiality rules, then there wouldn't actually be a problem," Tong said.
Lo Chan, spokesman for the Hong Kong News Executives Association, told local media that the HKU affair won't go away.
"Basically, this is a matter of public interest, but the handling of it in the form of a confidentiality agreement ... and an injunction represents a threat to press freedom," Lo said.
"Legal precedent states that they have the right to do this; the problem is the effect it will have," he said. "It'll make a lot of people wonder if we are entering an era where information is no longer freely available."
'Darkest days yet'
The HKU said in a statement on its website: "The University of Hong Kong is, has been, and will continue to be a place where freedom of expression, opinion and thought are respected, valued and promoted."
"The legal action has been brought to protect those freedoms," it said.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, the former British colony was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms and a "high degree of autonomy."
But journalists and political commentators say Hong Kong's formerly free press is seeing its "darkest days" yet in what is likely a harbinger of further erosion of the city's traditional freedoms.
In a recent annual report, the HKJA pointed to a series of "grave attacks, both physical and otherwise," including a brutal knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau, the sacking of Commercial Radio talk-show host Li Wei-ling, and the removal of other prominent journalists from senior editorial positions.
Advertising boycotts by major companies and the refusal of licenses to pro-democracy media, along with a major cyberattack on the Apple Daily website in June, have also been cited as reasons for concern.
Reported by Dai Weisen for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Hu Hanqiang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.