HONG KONG - The former editor of a Hong Kong newspaper whose ouster triggered protests over media freedom and Beijing's influence, is in a critical condition after being attacked with a cleaver, authorities said Wednesday.
Kevin Lau, former editor of the liberal Ming Pao newspaper, was hacked in broad daylight by two men who escaped on a motorbike in the Chai Wan district where the newspaper's headquarters is located, police said.
Lau, who was known for hard-hitting political investigations before being reassigned as chief editor in January, was confronted when he got out of his car.
"One of them alighted from the motorcycle and used a chopper to attack the victim," police spokesman Simon Kwan told a press conference outside the hospital where Lau was being treated.
"He suffered three wounds, one in his back and two in his legs," Kwan said, adding that the wound to his back was deep. A government spokesman said Lau was in a critical condition.
Lau was replaced by a pro-Beijing editor from Malaysia, prompting protests by staff who feared the move was an attempt to stifle the paper's strong track record of investigative reporting.
Critics said the sidelining was politically motivated as the city undergoes a debate over the future of its political system, 17 years after the handover from British rule, and as concerns mount that Beijing is seeking to tighten control.
Protestors took to the streets again on the weekend over what they said was the erosion of press freedom, and earlier this month two reports from international media watchdogs said self-censorship was becoming commonplace.
Under a deal struck between London and Beijing, the semi-autonomous territory of seven million is guaranteed freedom of speech among other liberties that China's mainland residents are denied.
Media groups, which have raised concerns over a series of sackings of high-profile media figures, called on the police to pursue Lau's attackers.
"We strongly condemn violence and urge the police to take action," Hong Kong Journalists Association chairman Sham Yee-lan told AFP.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club voiced its "shock" at the incident and urged authorities to address the growing number of attacks against members of the press.
"Hong Kong's reputation as a free and international city will suffer if such crimes go unsolved and unpunished," it said in a statement.
Vibrant press under pressure
Compared to the tightly controlled state press on China's mainland, Hong Kong's newsstands and networks offer a noisy jungle of competing outlets from across the political spectrum.
But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said this month that media freedom was "at a low point".
It cited self-censorship among reporters, financial and physical threats against the media and legislative steps that could hinder investigative reporting.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders also said Hong Kong's media independence "is now in jeopardy" as China flexes its muscles to stifle critical coverage.
The day the reports were released, radio host Li Wei-ling, who was known for her biting commentary against Beijing and the Hong Kong government, said she had been sacked from her station.
Violent assaults on journalists -- particularly those critical of the mainland authorities -- have become increasingly common.
Over two weeks in June last year multiple attacks were carried out against employees of Apple Daily, a popular Beijing-critical tabloid, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The same month Chen Ping, a publisher of a magazine known for its outspoken coverage of mainland issues, was beaten up, it said.
Top Hong Kong officials condemned Wednesday's attack on Lau.
The territory's Chief Secretary Carrie Lam told reporters that she was "shocked and saddened" by the assault.
"Hong Kong is a city with rule of law. All of society should condemn violence," she said.