Three columnists at the Chinese-language daily that sacked a top editor last week have submitted blank columns in protest at the move. The empty column spaces were run in Ming Pao’s print edition on Sunday but included an editor’s note justifying the controversial dismissal, which has raised concerns about a perceived decline in press freedom in the city. Keung Kwok-yuen, Ming Pao ’s former chief executive editor, was abruptly fired last Wednesday to cut costs, according to management. But the paper’s staff union suspected the move was meant to punish “dissidents of editorial decisions”. In its Sunday Life section, the paper ran blank columns by Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, founding leader of the Civic Party, and Eva Chan Sik-chee, a former Ming Pao journalist, with just headlines criticising the decision to sack Keung. Veteran media personality Ng Chi-sum also left his column empty bar one line explaining his headline, which was quoted from a poem written by demonstrators at a 1976 Tiananmen protest in Beijing: “In my grief I hear demons shriek; I weep while wolves and jackals laugh.” The Ming Pao Staff Association said editor-in-chief Chong Tien Siong had tried to block the move to run the blank columns. The association said in a Facebook post that Chong, who had been on leave, returned to work suddenly on Saturday night, proposing not to feature the columns about an hour after the pages had been sent to print. After discussions, the blank columns were kept, but an editor’s note was included reiterating that the paper’s decision to dismiss Keung was due to cost-cutting measures and that the paper’s editorial stance remained unchanged. The pages therefore had to be reprinted. In 2014, Ming Pao also ran blank columns by several writers including Chan and Ng that protested against a sudden decision to replace former chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to with Chong. The association said it was “angry” and “disappointed” with Chong’s alleged attempt to obstruct freedom of expression, adding his decision to stop the printing process resulted in economic losses for Ming Pao. Eu said it was unfortunate the paper did not respect its columnists’ freedom of expression. Lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, a former journalist, said the editor’s note “belittles the columnists’ use of blank space and shows a lack of editorial decency”.