Kevin Lau Chun-to – a Hong Kong journalist at the centre of a storm
After a quarter of a century writing news reports and commentaries about Hong Kong and China, veteran journalist Kevin Lau Chun-to – who was brutally chopped in a Sai Wan Ho street yesterday – had in recent weeks found himself in the headlines, held aloft as a victim in what some are calling Hong Kong’s besieged media.
It started last month when Lau made a surprise announcement to colleagues: he was being removed from his post as chief editor of the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao – a post he had held for just two years. The 49-year-old said he would assume a new role in the newspaper group, developing electronic books and teaching materials.
Ming Pao staff, as well as critics of the city’s government, were stunned. They protested, linking his ousting with political pressure from Beijing. They believed the newspaper management was unhappy with Lau’s editorial decisions – which some say are sympathetic to Hong Kong’s pan-democratic camp. Under Lau the paper investigated the city’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and the mysterious death of a mainland dissident, and participated in an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists into offshore bank accounts held by members of the Chinese elite.
Cheung Kin-bor, editorial director of Ming Pao, said the change had nothing to do with political pressure. He said the newspaper group’s senior management had always allowed editors a free hand to pursue stories.
Reports at the time said that Malaysian journalist Chong Tien Siong would replace Lau.
Ming Pao staff urged management to overturn its decision. Several said that Chong’s appointment threatened editorial independence and argued that Chong had no Hong Kong experience.
Chong is considered proBeijing, having made a deal with Hong Kong publication Wen Wei Po in 2009 to feature its content in the Malaysian newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau.
Despite the objections, Chong was appointed this month as principal executive editor – a newly created post – rather than as chief editor.
The paper said that editorial director Cheung would continue to act as chief editor, as he has since Lau became chief operating officer of Medianet Resources, a sister company of Ming Pao.
The move was greeted with “deepest regret”, according to several Ming Paostaff members who spoke with reporters.
The staff and some former employees of the 55-year-old newspaper started a petition and staged a rally last month. Several columnists, including the Democratic Party’s founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, commentator Sam Ng Chi-sum and radio host Li Wei-ling left their columns blank to show their discontent.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association organised a march last Sunday that according to its figures drew 6,000 people. The police put the turnout at 1,600.
Lau graduated with a law degree from the University of Hong Kong and obtained a master of laws degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
During his university studies, he worked part-time as a political assistant to Martin Lee, then a legislator and also a drafter of the Basic Law.
In 1989 Lau became a political news reporter and columnist with the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He left for Ming Pao in 1995 to write editorials. He was posted to Beijing from 2007 to 2009.
His wife, Vivien Lau, was a China news editor at the South China Morning Post. She is now the corporate affairs director at Kowloon Motor Bus.
Ming Pao‘s newsroom in Chai Wan has experienced violence before. In 2005, a bomb delivered in a parcel detonated, slightly injuring a secretary. At that time, Cheung said he suspected some investigative reports might have offended someone.
Speaking about the incident in a subsequent radio interview, Lau said he remained optimistic about Hong Kong’s press freedom.
“Hong Kong remains the one with the most mature civil society, and the place that is the most determined to uphold the values of press freedom and freedom of speech,” he said.
Last month Lau wrote in his column about the controversy sparked by his removal and new job. He said he respected the company’s decision and urged colleagues and critics to allow the company to resolve the dispute internally.
The company, he said, had treated him well during his 18 years there. He had chosen to stay because he “loves the work of new media”.