HONG KONG - Hong Kong journalists Thursday vowed they would not be intimidated by a brutal attack on a veteran colleague that has stoked fresh concerns for media freedom, declaring "they can't kill us all".
Kevin Lau - former editor of the liberal newspaper Ming Pao - is in a critical condition in hospital after two men attacked him with a cleaver, sparking condemnation from the United States, the European Union and press groups.
Police in the southern Chinese city say they are investigating Wednesday's violent assault, which came as concern mounts that Beijing is trying to tighten its control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Lau was removed as editor at the daily last month, triggering protests by staff who feared that replacing him with a pro-Beijing editor from Malaysia was an attempt to stifle the paper's strong track record of investigative reporting.
On Sunday, an estimated 6,000 protesters demonstrated in support of free expression in the media.
Journalists took to social media Thursday to express their support for Lau, saying they would not be deterred from doing their jobs.
"They can't kill us all," a widely-shared banner on Facebook read, accompanied by a graphic featuring three fists clutching a pencil, a smart phone and a microphone, representing a journalist's tools.
"We are angry. We roar. We need to stand up," said a statement put up by a group of university journalism students on the social network.
At the Chinese University, where Lau taught journalism part-time, banners and flyers featuring the slogan were displayed.
Chan Yuen-man, a journalism lecturer there, told AFP that freedom of the press cannot succumb to "pressure or the invisible hand".
Ming Pao's usual red logo was coloured black on Thursday.
"My colleagues won't be scared because of this incident, we will continue with our work," wrote the newspaper's interim chief editor Cheung Kin-por.
Lau, who was known for his uncompromising political investigations, was attacked in the Chai Wan district where the newspaper's headquarters are located. He was hit six times with a cleaver.
Security cameras showed the suspects riding a motorcycle. No arrests have been made so far.
Police described the attack as "a classic triad hit, which was designed to maim, not kill, to send a warning", the South China Morning Post reported.
Lau has undergone surgery for wounds including a 16 centimetre-long (six-inch) gash that cut through his back muscles and remains in "a critical condition", a Hong Kong Hospital Authority spokesman told AFP Thursday.
Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying later said: "Mr. Lau's situation has made progress", as reports said he had regained consciousness.
The US consulate has said it was "deeply concerned" as it joined calls from media groups for the authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.
And on Thursday the European Union's office in Hong Kong said it was "shocked by the cruel attack" and welcomed Leung's insistence that the territory would not tolerate such violence.
A public rally was being organised for Thursday evening outside government headquarters, with those attending encouraged to wear black to mark the "loss of press freedom" in the city.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, behind a recent expose on the offshore accounts of China's elites on which it worked with Ming Pao, said it was "horrified".
The group said it had no evidence linking the attack to the probe into powerful mainland figures, but that speculation over a connection "does reflect the real concern and anxiety felt by many in the Hong Kong press corps".
In June last year there were several attacks against employees of the outspoken Apple Daily. Chen Ping - a publisher of a magazine known for its outspoken coverage of mainland issues - was also beaten up.
Earlier this month, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said media freedom in Hong Kong was currently "at a low point", while Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said its independence "is now in jeopardy".