'Ginger' rally against sacking of Ming Pao editor

On April 21, journalist Jonathan Lai, who leads a team of investigative reporters in Ming Pao Daily News, surveyed their work with pride.

Splashed over five pages were their reports on the Panama Papers revealing how the city's powerful people, including tycoon Li Ka Shing, squirrelled away their money in offshore accounts.

Mr Lai, 35, credits the Chinese- language newspaper's then No. 2 editor for "giving us the time - more than one month - and space" for the project. But that same man, Mr Keung Kwok Yuen, had been summarily sacked the night before. The paper's chief editor Chong Tien Siong fired him at midnight, citing the need to cut costs.

Yesterday, Mr Lai was among some 400 people gathered outside Ming Pao's office to protest against the decision in a "ginger" rally. Holding up the spicy root vegetable - a pun on Mr Keung's surname - and placards lamenting how Ming Pao is no longer "ming", or open, they appealed to its owner, Malaysian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King, to remove Mr Chong and reinstate Mr Keung.

The sacking at Hong Kong's most respected broadsheet has inflamed already-simmering tensions in the city over whether its freedoms are being eroded, as Beijing extends its influence.

Members of the public and pro- democracy politicians turned out in a show of support yesterday.

Occupy movement poster boy Joshua Wong told The Straits Times: "In other countries, the Panama Papers led to politicians resigning. In Hong Kong, it's the editor who has to step down. It's ridiculous."

No one knows for sure why Mr Keung was sacked. Mr Lai and his colleagues, such as assistant editor- in-chief Carmen Sze, call him "our spiritual leader" in spearheading coverage of political issues. They said there had been "conflicts" between the two men since Mr Chong was parachuted in in 2014.

Mr Chong, when contacted, said he had nothing to add to what he had already said. He had told staff that Ming Pao has reached its "survival threshold". As he and Mr Keung drew the highest pay, the latter had to go. No other dismissals are expected. Ming Pao's profit dove 80 per cent between 2014 and last year.

Over the past two years, the paper's reporting has remained intrepid. But many here believe there is more to the episode.

Mr Tiong is known for his cultural pride as an ethnic Chinese - including in owning influential newspapers - and would unlikely have begrudged resources to Ming Pao, the jewel in his media empire. The tycoon, who has extensive business interests in China, has also publicly expressed his approval of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The incident thus has deepened fears of media muzzling or self-censorship, especially following the case of the booksellers who went missing in Hong Kong.

Last month, a founder of Hong Kong-based military affairs magazine Kanwa told the South China Morning Post he is leaving the city because of fears that his safety as a journalist cannot be guaranteed, while staff at BBC's Chinese-language services are protesting against a relocation from London to Hong Kong.

This article was first published on May 3, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.