18 February 2019
Ming Pao employees have expressed concern over the sacking of a senior editor, citing the "unclear" circumstances behind the ouster. Photo: Ming Pao Staff Association/Facebook
Ming Pao employees have expressed concern over the sacking of a senior editor, citing the "unclear" circumstances behind the ouster. Photo: Ming Pao Staff Association/Facebook

Press freedom: Why the worries will only grow

The abrupt sacking of a top editor at Ming Pao Daily News, one of Hong Kong’s most influential newspapers, will intensify concerns about erosion of press freedoms in the city.

The paper’s management insists that executive chief editor Keung Kwok-yuen was let go for cost-cutting reasons, but most people in the local media community are not buying that explanation.

There is speculation that Keung was fired as he has earned the displeasure of some elite due to his bold editorial decisions.  

The suspicions are understandable given that the marching orders came Wednesday soon after Ming Pao devoted its front page to a story about the links of the city’s wealthy and politically-connected to offshore entities. 

While pro-Beijing mouthpieces have played down the so-called Panama Papers leaks, Ming Pao has carried extensive coverage on the controversial documents that pointed to the dealings of some tycoons, politicians and celebrities in overseas tax havens.

The termination of Keung’s employment has come as a shock to Ming Pao’s editorial staff as well as the Chinese-language newspaper’s vast army of readers.

Some lawmakers have also expressed concern, given that the paper had over the years carved out an image of being outspoken and daring to question those in power, through in-depth and high-quality articles.

It is believed that Keung had some differences with Ming Pao’s chief editor Chong Tien-siong over editorial policy, which led to the boss suddenly sacking his deputy.

Chong is seen as someone who is sympathetic to Beijing and its backers in Hong Kong.  

When Chong, a Malaysian, took the top job in 2014, there were concerns that he could undermine the paper’s editorial independence.

It was rumored that the group’s owner, Malaysian tycoon Tiong Hiew King, wanted the Chinese daily to be more favorably disposed towards the Xi Jinping regime.

Following Keung’s dismissal, Ming Pao staff association has asked the management to reconsider its decision, but it appears that the company has made up its mind.

The paper said that it was forced to cut staff due to a “difficult business environment”, and stressed that its editorial principles remain unchanged.

While it is difficult to prove that Keung’s removal was due to his tough stance on upholding independent journalism, journalists have several questions for the management.

If cost-cutting was the only reason, why did the company not consider an across-the-board salary cut on employees, instead of eliminating jobs?

And, was it right to remove an experienced, outspoken and respected journalist, citing his high salary package?

Simon Fung, a former executive editor-in-chief of Ming Pao, commented: “The management underestimates the wisdom of the editorial staff and the readers.”

Seen from a wider perspective, Keung’s dismissal has fueled worry that Hong Kong’s press freedom is coming under increasing threat as Beijing seeks to extend its influence in the territory.

Journalists here can still work on the stories they like, but there is the prospect of top editors or management killing articles they deem politically sensitive or likely to anger the big tycoons.

Incidentally, international press freedom concern group “Reporters without Borders” unveiled its latest world press freedom index report on Wednesday.

In the report, the group noted that in Hong Kong, the “media’s independence vis-à-vis Beijing is the main issue for freedom of information”.

“The media are still able to cover sensitive stories involving the local government and Mainland China, but the need to fight to protect their editorial positions from Beijing’s influence is increasingly noticeable.”

The purchase of Hong Kong media by Chinese firms is extremely disturbing, the journalists’ group added.

China’s Alibaba Group, led by its chairman Jack Ma, has taken control of Hong Kong’s top English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, a move that observers believe will make the paper steer clear of strong criticism of China or its leaders.

On Thursday, the paper published on its front page an interview with Ma, where the new owner sought to explain his decision to acquire the Hong Kong newspaper.

Among other remarks, Ma said “readers have the right to know what’s happening in China in a factual and objective way”.

There are a lot of “misunderstandings” about China, he said, adding that there is a need to address the issue.

While Ma did stress that he won’t interfere in the newsroom operation, the tycoon’s comments on imbalances in China reporting will make people wonder as to what exactly would be deemed “fair and objective” coverage.

Although there may not be explicit instructions, editorial staff will feel the pressure to go easy on stories critical of the central leadership.

Overall, there is no disputing the fact that Beijing is stepping up efforts to control the Hong Kong media and steer the public discourse on pro-establishment path.

In this, some media owners are being co-opted, through calls to create a “harmonious society”.

While newspapers can still enjoy sufficient room to criticize local officials and policies, a red line is sought be drawn to prevent coverage on sensitive topics on China — such as human rights, political dissidents, and wrongdoings of top Communist leaders.

A survey conducted recently by the University of Hong Kong has shown that concerns are growing about the shrinking of press freedom in the city.

Fifty-two percent of the interviewees said they believe Hong Kong’s news media practiced self-censorship to avoid rubbing the central government the wrong way.

The latest news of the sacking of a senior editor, who was known to champion editorial independence, will only add to the prevailing concerns.

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EJ Insight writer

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