Hong Kong pro-democracy tabloid blames Beijing for cyberattack

HONG KONG (AFP) - A leading Hong Kong pro-democracy tabloid on Thursday blamed Beijing for a massive cyberattack on its website, just days after a series of similar attacks on an online referendum on electoral reform.

The website of Apple Daily, known for its critical stance on Beijing, suffered a blackout for several hours on Wednesday after what it described as a large-scale attack launched by sophisticated hackers.

The attack comes at a time of heightened tension in the former British colony as pro-democracy activists worry that Beijing will backtrack on universal suffrage promised to Hong Kong in 2017.

In a front page article headlined "We will never backtrack", the Apple Daily accused Beijing of orchestrating the cyberattack.

"Apple Daily is attacked every day but this time the scale was unprecedented," said Mr Cheung Ka-sing, chief executive of Next Media that owns Apple Daily.

"I don't want to speculate the motives of the hackers but I believe cyberattacks will continue to happen," he was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

The incident comes on the heels of a series of June 14 attacks on a website of "Occupy Central", a pro-democracy movement launched by local activists aimed at pushing China to allow universal suffrage in the semi-autonomous city, whose leader is currently chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

The https://popvote.hk website, built by the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, on Friday will host an informal referendum on democratic reforms in the city.

Beijing's cabinet last week published a controversial white paper reasserting China's control over Hong Kong, triggering angry protests in the city.

It was China's first ever policy document stipulating how Hong Kong should be governed, in what was widely interpreted as a warning to the city not to overstep the boundaries of its autonomy.

The city has been guaranteed semi-autonomous status and civil liberties under the "one country, two systems" arrangement reached by China and Britain but there have been concerns that Beijing will exert more control over the city.

The cyberattack on the Apple Daily prompted strong condemnation from the city's journalists' association.

"We strongly urge the police to take the case seriously and find the truth as soon as possible and prosecute those responsible in order to protect the freedom of press in Hong Kong," it said in a statement.

In March, the international Committee to Protect Journalists said media freedom in Hong Kong was "at a low point", citing 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 in a report published in the same month that Hong Kong's media independence was "in jeopardy", as China flexes its muscles to stifle critical coverage.