Hong Kong politicians are to debate press freedom in the Chinese territory's legislature after fears that the editor of a top Chinese-language newspaper was removed to avoid angering Beijing.
A motion tabled by Civil Party lawmaker Alan Leong at the Legislative Council (LegCo) will call on Hong Kong journalists to "remain steadfast" amid growing concerns that self-censorship and a lack of editorial autonomy are eroding the city's traditionally free press in the wake of the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
The proposed debate comes after the Chinese-language Ming Pao ran a series of empty columns as part of a growing public protest at the removal of Kevin Lau as editor-in-chief.
Among those who left their columns blank was former Democratic Party chairman Martin Lee.
Ming Pao staff have already formed a concern group to protest the loss of Lau, while Hong Kong's Professional Teachers' Union, whose members regularly use the paper as a teaching tool for current affairs and politics class, has begun a signature campaign to express concerns over changes at the newspaper.
The union will also call on secondary school and university teaching staff to sign a petition demanding the paper's senior management uphold press freedom, local media reported on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, the Ming Pao management announced that editorial director Cheung Kin-por will step in to fill Lau's shoes for the two-week interim before the arrival of his successor, Malaysian journalist and former Nanyang Siang Pau editor Chong Tien-siong, who is still awaiting a work visa.
Lau will now take up a new post at the group's e-publishing and education unit.
'Repositioning' of the paper
There are fears that Lau, who has edited the Ming Pao since 2012, is being moved as part of a "repositioning" of the paper, which is widely viewed as a good source of news on the inner workings of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The recent post transfer of a veteran and influential journalist by the media organization to which he belongs has once again aroused the concern of society about the impact on freedom of the press and editorial autonomy," Leong wrote in his motion tabled ahead of LegCo's meeting on Wednesday.
Citing a recent opinion poll, Leong said more than half of the respondents consider that the phenomenon of self-censorship exists among Hong Kong news media, while public trust in the media is at an all-time low since the handover.
"This Council expresses concern and calls on journalists to remain steadfast in their duties, safeguard the principle of editorial independence and autonomy, and continue to give play to the functions of the Fourth Estate," Leong's motion said.
Ming Pao staff member Sin Wan-kei said editorial staff at the paper all "had an opinion" about Chong's appointment.
"We are extremely unhappy about the situation, and regret it deeply," Sin said.
Political affairs commentator Lam Kei said the move was the latest in a string of attacks on press freedom in Hong Kong since Britain's 1997 handover of the territory to China.
"While the Ming Pao has been 'harmonized' for some time, there was a last bastion of courageous journalists who fought a rearguard action, which has now apparently also been lost," Lam said in a reference to Beijing's use of the word "harmony" to indicate censorship of public expression.
"This tolls the death knell for press freedom in Hong Kong."
"We have been through 17 years of rolling back [press freedom]," Lam wrote in a commentary aired on RFA's Cantonese Service. "The Hong Kong media is now a very long way from what it was 17 years ago."
"There is not just a muzzle on opinion; now even news reporting is seeing continual limitations on content and angle," he wrote.
Cheung told a meeting with staff on Monday that the paper's management had "the right" to select whoever they chose for the job.
"It's not appropriate for us to comment on [their] comments or their actions," he said.
Ken Lui, convener of the press freedom subcommittee for the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), said the Ming Pao campaign had garnered more than 800 signatures by Tuesday.
"We expressed our disappointment and regret [at Lau's replacement] at the meeting," Lui said in an interview.
"We will make a formal announcement of the number of signatures on Friday, and we are discussing whether or not to present them to Ming Pao management," he said.
"We want to tell them that the point of our...campaign is to protect press freedom and editorial independence at the Ming Pao," Lui added.
He said Chong was "unused to the Hong Kong environment," and that appointing him would harm the Ming Pao, which was one of the most trusted news outlets in Hong Kong.
Some media reports linked Lau's removal to the paper's front-page coverage in October of broadcaster Hong Kong TV's failure to win a free-to-air television license, which linked the government's decision to political concerns that the station's reporting might offend Beijing.
Former North America chief executive Lui Ka-ming has been called in to "rectify" the paper's editorial line ahead of a crucial public debate on electoral reforms, a possible "Occupy" movement in the Central business district, and the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Apple Daily newspaper reported last week.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.