HK fears erosion of press freedom

HK fears erosion of press freedom
Apple Daily's chief editor Cheung Kim Hung

At the lobby of the industrial building where Apple Daily, daily purveyor of political exposes and celebrity gossip, operates, there stands a bust of an unlikely person: a Scottish colonial servant.

Inscribed beneath the sculpture of John Cowperthwaite - Hong Kong's famously libertarian financial secretary from 1961 to 1971 - is a quote of his, warning of the "harm" from "the centralised decisions of a government".

Scepticism about the powers- that-be has been a pervasive force in Apple Daily's brand of journalism since it slammed into the city in 1995, something that has since evolved into an unabashedly anti- Beijing stance.

Nearly two decades on, this is exerting a price.

It began last August when two banks - HSBC and the Bank of East Asia - suddenly yanked their advertisements, according to its chief editor Cheung Kim Hung.

Other banks, including Standard Chartered, and property companies Kerry Properties and Hongkong Land followed suit.

"Officially, they didn't say why," says Mr Cheung. "But it is no coincidence why they all suddenly stopped during this sensitive period."

Beijing is believed to be the hand behind the ad pullouts. An HSBC representative reportedly told an executive of Next Media, Apple Daily's company, that Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong told the bank to end its advertising relationship.

Freesheet AM730 was similarly hit when three Chinese banks withdrew their ads.

Beijing's allegedly hardball tactics, among others, are cited as having made the past year the "darkest" for Hong Kong's press freedom in the last three decades, according to the latest annual report by the Hong Kong Journalist Association.

The 42-page report cited examples such as the brutal knifing of former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau, personnel changes that amounted to the "removal of critical voices", perceived self-censorship and the government's use of background briefings instead of open press conferences to release information.

The Sunday Times' interviews with local news editors, journalists and media scholars, not unexpectedly, indicate differences in opinion as to whether the various cases are due to political interference or are legitimate decisions.

But there is certainly a consensus: that with Hong Kong undergoing its worst political tumult since the 1997 handover, the city's freewheeling and influential media is facing greater pressure and scrutiny from all quarters.

As Ming Pao's principal executive editor Chong Tien Siong puts it: "Seventeen years after the hand- over, Hong Kong's political environment has entered another stage. And the media, as a reflection of the times and the society, will instantly feel different types of pressure."

One clear trend is that with society torn over contentious issues such as universal suffrage and the city's fraught relationship with Beijing, there is a further political polarisation of Hong Kong's already fragmented media.

Readers themselves play a role in this, observes journalism academic Clement So of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

With 18 newspapers - excluding online sites - competing for readership in a city of 7.2 million, many find that they are not attracting eyeballs without strong political stances.

"Readers can get information online and if newspapers cannot follow up with strong opinions, readers will pass on your article," says Professor So. "If you don't have assertive views, no one reads you."

There is also the concern that with the society swept up in political fervour, reporters themselves may not maintain sufficient distance from the news developments, says Mr Chong.

But the largest charge is levelled at powerful players, in particular Beijing and the Hong Kong government, for exerting pressure on media outlets.

Ming Pao, for instance, was accused of serving Beijing's interests when its owner, Malaysian tycoon Tiong Hiew King, brought in Mr Chong, also a Malaysian, to replace its chief editor who had been in the job for about two years. This invited charges that Mr Chong was put there to temper the paper's investigative reporting.

Mr Chong denies this, saying he disagrees with critics who say that the influential paper has become "more pro-Beijing".

He stresses that his biggest concern is to achieve "objectivity in our reporting", although he also notes that it is no easy task given that the definition of objectivity in itself can be subjective.

Meanwhile, instances of perceived censorship have been cited at other papers like the Hong Kong Economic Journal where columnists complain that their pieces have been edited beyond recognition. An outspoken commentator was fired from Commercial Radio.

Those on the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, argue that such developments have pushed them further to the fringe.

Apple Daily used to carry a 7:3 mix of voices that are critical versus supportive of the establishment, says Mr Cheung. "Now, it's 9:1," he admits, adding that it is "not a healthy development".

He claims the moral high ground in this, saying that with censorship, "certain voices can appear now only in our pages".

"Too many newspapers are already reflecting the establishment's voice, and so the onus is greater on Apple Daily - in advocating for democracy, freedom and human rights - to highlight other (voices)," he argues.

"The more you clamp down on us, the more in one direction the media will move, becoming either pro- or anti-Beijing."

Ultimately, decisions regarding the editing of an article or personnel changes can be subjective. A writer may be sacked as a result of political interference. It could also be that his work is just not up to par. Charges that media freedoms are being eroded in Hong Kong also have to be put in perspective - no reporter has been jailed or persecuted for his views.

But what is clear is that in the current political environment, there is decreasing trust and an increasing disconnect between newspaper bosses and their reporters as well as the public, notes Mr Man Cheuk Fei, former chief editor of HKEJ Monthly.

The most recent example was when a Ming Pao editorial director, Mr Lui Ka Ming, stopped the presses to change a front-page headline at 3.30am on July 2. The original heading - "10-year-high turnout for march to fight for universal suffrage" - became "Hundreds rehearse for Occupy Central, police clearing the space".

Mr Lui said he did so in order to reflect the latest news, a plausible explanation.

But to Hong Kongers wary about the undermining of their freedoms, it was interference, plain and simple.


Attack on Ming Pao editor 'not linked to China'

The cleaver attack on former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau was likely due to certain news reports that he had overseen, says the man designated as his successor.

But Mr Chong Tien Siong "personally does not think it has to do with Beijing".

"They won't punish a newsman in such a way. They won't want you to die and make you a hero," he says.

There was speculation after the Feb 26 attack that it was payback for Mr Lau's efforts in pursuing investigative reports that had unearthed details of mainland officials' offshore businesses. Since then, nine people, some with triad links, have been arrested. But the mastermind remains at large.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Chong says his newspaper has been working with the police and passing them relevant articles. "We feel that what happened has to do with certain news reports," he adds, declining to say more while the police investigation continues.

The truth, he believes, will soon emerge. "It is something the government has to deal with. Hong Kong is a place that values media freedom and the pressure to solve the case is high."

Meanwhile, Ming Pao will continue to work with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in running stories on corrupt Chinese officials so long as "there is factual evidence or sources are reliable, it is not defamatory or the risks are low", he adds.

In his first sit-down interview since he replaced Mr Lau as chief editor six months ago, Mr Chong also addressed criticism of his appointment which sparked staff protests and disquiet among media watchers.

The Malaysian was the first foreigner to be considered for the top job at a local Chinese paper here.

That he was picked personally by Ming Pao's owner, Malaysian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King - who has business interests in China - to replace Mr Lau, who had been in the seat for under two years, was taken by many as a sign that it was a move to please Beijing. Critics also argued that Mr Chong, given his unfamiliarity with Hong Kong, was an odd fit for the job especially at this tumultuous juncture as the city negotiates for constitutional reform.

Mr Chong, 56, sees it differently: his "distance" as an outsider, he says, gives him a fresh and dispassionate eye in observing developments. And since becoming Ming Pao's principal executive editor, he says: "I think colleagues have seen that I have not (unnecessarily) interfered in anything."

Mr Chong says his appointment was "natural", given his previous experience as chief editor of Malaysia's Nanyang Siang Pau and as a correspondent for Yazhou Zoukan, both of which are part of the media company that includes Ming Pao.

As for whether Mr Tiong's business interests are served by such a move, Mr Chong says his boss has been investing in China for decades, and has never interfered in Ming Pao since acquiring it in 1995.

"He is someone who greatly respects Chinese culture, and to go from that, to (saying) all this about him, this is the biggest misunderstanding about him."

While dismissing talk that his job is to please Beijing, Mr Chong also says that as a society becomes more complex, as Hong Kong is today, "the media will tend to walk towards different directions - left and right".

While stressing that he intends for Ming Pao to remain "strictly objective", he adds that one of his most important tasks is to ensure adequate distance between his reporters and the events and players that they report on.

"I've been here over 100 days, and my sense is that the vast majority of our colleagues are professionals with a passion for news. They take the responsibility of being a watchdog very seriously. Such ideals, I basically agree with.

"What I require most out of them is objectivity, and how to have a bit more distance with news developments and ensure accuracy, balance, context, distance in their reporting. And I think they basically achieve it."

What is "objective" though may sometimes be difficult to pin down, and Mr Chong is aware that his calls for "objectivity" could be construed by critics as an excuse for censorship. But he maintains that he is an "open-minded person" who does not meddle with editorial copy - including of commentators critical of him in Ming Pao's own pages. "No problem, as long there is no defamation.

"We believe in expression of different views. Let a hundred flowers bloom."

Li Xueying

This article was first published on July 13, 2014.
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