Act Of Terror

There is a line of thought in military circles that you do the enemy more harm by injuring one of his soldiers rather than killing him outright.

A dead soldier can be left on the battlefield where he fell, and his body recovered later when it is safer to do so.

A wounded soldier will cry out for help and his comrades will instinctively want to rush to his aid, putting their own lives at risk.

In similar vein, terrorists sometimes set off a small bomb first to injure a few people, allow an interval for rescuers to run forward to assist the fallen, then set off a larger bomb to kill everyone.

Twisted thinking, but effective if your aim is to inspire fear. Next time – and there is always a next time – even the well intentioned will be slower to help. The fact that such tactics are often pursued in the name of religion is further evidence of just how mentally sick these people really are.

All of which is by way of scene setting before we address the vicious and cowardly attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau.

Several aspects of the case stand out. The assailants clearly came to maim rather than to kill, which they could easily have done. They were hired for the purpose and targeted a particular individual. This was not a random exercise, it was a well planned assault intended to send a message.

Working back from this scenario, the pieces almost align themselves. Someone very powerful and wealthy – and evil – has been angered by something Mr Lau has done.

Mr Lau is a journalist, and the most notable thing he has done recently is join his paper to an international effort to expose the enormous wealth secured by senior mainland officials and their relatives.

Of course there are other possibilities, but the overwhelming likelihood is that those concerned wanted to put a stop to this slew of negative stories, if not in the media overseas, at least in the Chinese language press close to home.

Their message is: if you continue to write about our wealth and corruption, the same thing could happen to you. We do not want a dead Mr Lau, who might be a hero for a while but then buried and forgotten. We want a live, crippled Mr Lau to be a nagging reminder to you all that we are strong and you should not try to fight us.

How should Hong Kong respond to this kind of attack on our core values? Obviously the first step is for the doctors in our excellent public hospitals to do their utmost to save his life and make the fullest possible recovery. In parallel, our police can be relied on to do their best to identify and track down the culprits. This will be a tough job, especially if the attackers came from out of town. Even harder will be finding out and getting firm evidence of who hired the gangsters and ordered the hit.

This might require assistance from agencies outside Hong Kong. Whether they would have the appetite to give it is an interesting question.

A useful place to start to look for clues might be the senior echelons of Ming Pao. By coincidence – or perhaps not – the management had very recently moved Mr Lau out of his position as chief editor after only two years in the job and replaced him with a Malaysian journalist thought to have a good working relationship with the mainland. Mr Lau would take up a new position in the organisation. The reshuffle was controversial and poorly received by front line colleagues. Was the move made in response to a suggestion from anyone?

Looking further ahead, the entire Hong Kong media – proprietors, editors, front line journalists – must square up and make it clear that they will not be intimidated into failing to do their duty. They must continue to give full coverage to the acts and omissions of the wicked, however senior and powerful they might be. This will take courage.

There is more. It is well known that some commercial organisations use their advertising budgets as tools to punish or reward the media for coverage of themselves or friends elsewhere. They need to search their consciences and ask whether there are not more important principles at stake.

There is a role for the public at large too. We are consumers of the media's output. We can make it clear by the choices we make that we want serious investigative journalism and rational discussion of important issues, not just gossip about minor show business celebrities or mindless sensationalism.

We need to be careful. Not every personnel change in the media is sinister. Not every radio show host, columnist and reporter is perfect and the management should be entitled to make appropriate changes without being automatically accused of undermining press freedom.

Those claiming such should be required to show evidence, not just make assertions.

But there is no such ambiguity in the case of Mr Lau. It is an attack on freedom of the press and the whole community needs to respond.