The chief editor of a local newspaper is "shocked and disappointed" at being asked to apologize and retract an article on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
The commentary was based on an interview with Leung's former top supporter Lew Mon-hung.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association also took exception to the letter from a lawyer representing Leung.
"It is inappropriate for Mr Leung to jump in with threats of legal action before even responding to the commentary so as to allow for a rational discussion of the issues," it said.
Hong Kong Economic Journal chief editor Chan King-cheung said the media had always enjoyed the freedom to comment on events and that Leung's demand is unusual. Chan had earlier been served with a legal letter demanding an apology and a retraction of what Leung considered to be a "libellous" column.
In a separate statement, Leung said he has all along "respected freedom of speech and freedom of the press."
The statement added: "Nevertheless, the [Journal] article contains serious allegations which accused me of having relations with a triad society. The matter has to be taken seriously."
Leung said he was aware and accepted the last paragraph of the notice published by the paper in which it said that "if this piece has caused readers to arrive at an unfair conclusion about Mr Leung or inconvenience, then the newspaper apologizes."
However, the paper said the article was published in the public interest. The piece by veteran current affairs commentator and former Central Policy Unit adviser Joseph Lian Yi-zheng was published in the commentators' section on January 29. Lian made reference to a dinner before the chief executive election at which Leung's campaign team members, including Lew, and a notorious gangster had been present.
"I am shocked as this is the first time an incumbent chief executive has issued a legal letter to the media," Lian said. Chan said Hongkongers have always valued freedom of speech. "It will be a bad thing for Hong Kong if this incident has a negative impact on the media."
He said the paper's apology was aimed at the readers and not Leung.
The paper said the management, editorial department and the author did not say Leung had links with triads, adding Lian clearly stated that to support such claims further evidence was needed.
Civic Party lawmaker and barrister Alan Leong Kah-kit said it was unwise for Leung to issue the legal letter and even if he sues the paper for libel his chances of success are slim.
Hong Kong News Executives' Association chairman Chiu Ying-chun said politicians should view media criticism as a challenge to improve their work and it is wrong to turn to legal means. Chiu did not think press freedom is in danger.
Barrister and former Civic Party lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee launched a campaign - "I welcome chief executive to sue me for libel" - on her Facebook account calling on citizens to send the commentary to their friends.
However, DAB lawmaker Tam Yiu- chung said Leung, like anyone else, has the right to seek justice through the law.
Commentary: Page 6