HONG KONG - Fears over press freedom in Hong Kong intensified after two media executives were beaten by masked men, with one newspaper Thursday describing a "siege atmosphere" in the city.
The attack on the senior figures from the Hong Kong Morning News Media Group on Wednesday came just weeks after veteran journalist Kevin Lau was hacked with a meat cleaver - he remains in hospital with serious injuries.
Both Wednesday's attack and the assault on Lau took place in broad daylight and have raised alarm that journalists in the city are in increasing danger.
The United States voiced concern following the latest incident saying it was "troubled" by the violence, while press groups condemned the fresh attack.
Two alleged hitmen in the Lau case appeared in court for the first time Thursday.
Yip Kim-wah and Wong Chi-wah, who work as plumbers and are both 37, remained calm and expressionless as charges of malicious wounding with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm were read.
The pair were also charged with the theft of a motorcycle, which was believed to be used to flee from the scene of the attack.
They spoke only to say that they had understood the charges and did not enter a plea.
Local media, citing mainland authorities, have said the suspects were part of the Shui Fong triad criminal gang and were paid HK$1 million ($129,000) each to carry out the attack.
An editorial in The Standard newspaper on Thursday ran with the headline "New attack brings siege atmosphere" and called for neutrality while police investigate.
"While the details of the most recent attack are not completely clear, we are troubled by a series of incidents over the past year that seem to target Hong Kong media figures," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
"Hong Kong's well-established tradition for respect for the rule of law and internationally recognised fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press, remain crucial to Hong Kong's long-standing success and reputation as a leading centre of global commerce," she told reporters late Wednesday.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association expressed "serious concern" and the Foreign Correspondents' Club highlighted its increasing concern for media workers in the city.
"After the attack on Kevin Lau, who remains in hospital with grave injuries, this latest incident only underscores the deepening shadows being cast over the media landscape in Hong Kong from violence, intimidation and interference by political and commercial interests," the Foreign Correspondents' Club said in a statement.
'Speaking for the people of Hong Kong'
Lei Lun-han, the Hong Kong Morning News Group's vice president, and Lam Kin-ming, its news controller, were set upon by four men with iron bars in Hong Kong's busy commercial district of Tsim Sha Tsui.
The two, left with minor injuries from the attack, have since been released from hospital, a police spokeswoman said Thursday.
The Chinese-language Hong Kong Morning News is due to launch later this year and issued a statement that the launch would go ahead as planned, despite the assault on its staff, local media reported.
The newspaper said in a statement in February that all of its funds would be raised "locally" - implying that the mainland would not be involved - and that the staff of the newspaper would "work hard to speak for the Hong Kong people".
"A balanced and credible newspaper is needed in today's Hong Kong news environment," said the statement, which was published on Hong Kong news website House News.
The attack on Lau came weeks after he had been removed from the top job at liberal newspaper Ming Pao and replaced with an editor widely seen as pro-Beijing.
His removal triggered protests over the state of media freedom in Hong Kong, with concern mounting that Beijing is seeking to tighten control over the city.
Police last week arrested nine other suspects in Hong Kong in connection with Lau's case, all of whom are on bail.