Hundreds of people protested outside the offices of Hong Kong's Ming Pao newspaper on Monday over the sacking of a respected editor last month.
Around 400 people, including journalists, rights activists and ordinary citizens, gathered outside the headquarters of the Ming Pao, which fired former chief executive editor Keung Kwok-yuen on April 20 after the paper ran a front-page story linked to the Panama Papers leak.
Carrying banners that read: "They can't fire us all," and carrying pieces of ginger as a pun on Keung's name, the protesters called for Keung's reinstatement, highlighting fears for press freedom in the former British colony.
"We want them to know that a lot of people still support the staff [at the Ming Pao]," a protester surnamed Au told RFA on Monday. "I am here to show that support."
A Ming Pao journalist surnamed Lam said he had joined the protest while he was off duty.
"I thought the reasons given by the Ming Pao [for Keung's sacking] were ridiculous," Lam said. "They said they were trying to cut costs, but staff at the paper said they would accept a salary freeze."
"This could have been achieved in any number of ways."
Keung's ouster sent shock waves through the city's media industry, which is already reeling from a string of violent attacks and concerns over growing self-censorship in the city under the watchful eye of Beijing.
It came after the paper ran a front-page report in its April 20 edition based on files leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The story detailed offshore accounts held by politicians and tycoons in the former British colony, including former second-in-command Henry Tang and multibillionaire magnate Li Ka-shing, who controls the conglomerate CK Hutchison Holdings.
Lam said the decision had alienated many of the Ming Pao's editorial staff.
"Of course we have to come out in protest, because it's not just Keung Kwok-yuen who is under attack, it's press freedom generally."
A Ming Pao employee surnamed Choi said the protest over Keung's sacking is about more than just the internal running of the newspaper.
"I am very moved that everyone is willing to come out in protest, because ... this isn't just about commercial decisions and the way a company treats its staff," Choi said.
"We are here because of the way we have been trained, and because we have a responsibility towards our readers, towards the people of Hong Kong," she said.
"We won't let this drop; we will keep fighting it."
Call to reinstate
Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) chairwoman Sham Yee-lan called on the Ming Pao management to reinstate Keung, in what is now being dubbed the "ginger" protests, because Keung's name sounds similar to "ginger" in Hong Kong's lingua franca, Cantonese.
"The fact that 400 people have turned out today shows that this incident has made them feel that press freedom is under threat," Sham said.
"Protecting journalists means that we are also protecting the public's right to information."
Phyllis Tsang, spokeswoman for the Ming Pao staff association, said staff are still discussing the possibility of industrial action in response to Keung's removal.
"There have been suggestions from staff that we might prepare for industrial action, but we have to make certain preparations, and there are different approaches we could take," Tsang said.
"However, we will wait for a clear response from management before we decide on whether to take action, and what kind of action to take," she said.
Monday's protest follows a number of blank spaces in lieu of columns by three of the newspaper’s prominent commentators, prompting a stand-off late last month between editor-in-chief Chong Tian Siong and editorial staff.
Regular Ming Pao columnists Eva Chan, a journalism lecturer; Audrey Eu, a pan-democratic politician; and journalist Sam Ng all left their columns blank in protest over Keung's departure.
Notes citing the Ming Pao management's explanation for Keung's dismissal were added to the columns after Chong stopped the presses to try to prevent the blank spaces from appearing, the Economic Journal newspaper reported last week.
Fears for press freedom
Journalists and pan-democratic politicians have issued a number of warnings over Beijing's growing influence in Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms as a separate legal jurisdiction under the terms of Hong Kong's 1997 handover from Britain to China.
Richard Choi, of the Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, said the blank columns were a symbolic representation of growing public fears for press freedom.
"I think there has been an attack on the editorial system, and on editorial independence at the Ming Pao," Choi said in a recent interview. "Everyone is concerned, not just staff at the newspaper."
"The blank column protests alone lasted for more than a week ... People in Hong Kong are worried about press freedom."
Self-censorship is regarded as the biggest threat to Hong Kong's formerly freewheeling media, many of which rely on advertising revenue from companies with huge business interests in China.
Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau said Beijing is "exerting a lot of pressure on media, and many news organizations are willing to comply."
"Hong Kong people have to stick together to defend editorial independence," she told Agence France-Presse.
Reporters have said the decision to sack Keung was made by Chong Tien Siong, who is seen as a pro-Beijing editor brought in two years ago to replace veteran investigative journalist Kevin Lau as chief editor, a move which also sparked protests by newspaper staff.
Lau was later stabbed in broad daylight in an attack that left him with severe injuries.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.