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Firebomb attacks on home and office of Hong Kong media tycoon

January 12, 2015

Firebomb attacks early Monday on the Hong Kong home and office of pro-democracy newspaper tycoon Jimmy Lai have triggered new fears over the safety of outspoken media figures in the city.

The attacks came as tension remains high in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city after more than two months of protests seeking free leadership elections. They ended when rally camps were cleared in December.

Lai was targeted during the protests by a group of men who threw rotten meat at him. The headquarters producing his outspoken Apple Daily newspaper were repeatedly blockaded to disrupt distribution.

Other journalists and media workers have also been victims, including the former editor of liberal newspaper Ming Pao who was stabbed in the street in broad daylight last February.

“Anti-democratic forces in Hong Kong keep resorting to violence,” Lai’s spokesman Mark Simon told AFP.

“Violence and intimidation seem to be the ongoing currency for those opposed to democracy and free press. There is no other plausible explanation here.”

Monday’s two almost simultaneous attacks came just before 2:00 am at Lai’s home and the Next Media headquarters, which publishes Apple Daily.

“The cases have been classified as arson,” a police spokeswoman told AFP, adding no one had been arrested so far.

Security camera footage uploaded to the Apple Daily website shows a masked man throwing a flaming glass bottle towards the gate of Lai’s mansion. It explodes on the ground outside as the suspect flees in a car.

Footage from outside the Next Media headquarters also shows a flaming bottle thrown towards the building entrance and smashing on the ground.

There were no injuries.

The city’s justice minister Rimsky Yuen condemned the attacks.

“Regardless of who the target is, the social status, political background or stance, Hong Kong as a city with rule of law definitely does not tolerate this,” he said.

The firebombings take place against a backdrop of increased vigilance at media organisations across the globe after the deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Party called on officials to act.

“Following the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo world leaders stood up and walked the streets of Paris to participate in a protest against violence. The Democratic Party also urges officials to act to protect freedom of the press,” it said.

– ‘Think twice’ –

Simon said the attacks were “more depressing than shocking” and added that Lai, 66, quickly went back to bed after being told what had happened.

“He is psychologically prepared for anything. It’s Jimmy Lai,” Simon said.

He emphasised that the attacks “in no way compared” to those in France but voiced his fears over the violence.

“Peaceful disagreement has been a norm in Hong Kong for so long. Pro-government supporters should really think twice about this kind of violence being imported to Hong Kong over political issues.”

Apple Daily divides opinion in Hong Kong, with reporting criticised by some as sensational.

“No matter what we think about the newspaper and its content and style, the fact remains that it is almost a lone voice among the Hong Kong media in its pro-democracy stance,” said veteran television journalist Chan Yuen-man, now a lecturer at the Chinese University.

“People in the news media are right to be worried.”

Lai was a regular visitor to the protest camps and was arrested during the clearance of the main Admiralty site. He has been asked to appear at a police station later this month.

Police are targeting “principal instigators” of the protests, which called for full democracy after China declared that candidates for the city’s leadership election in 2017 would be vetted by a loyalist committee.

Lai stepped down as chairman of Next Media in December following his arrest. He is still a major shareholder.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.