Is The Free Press Under Attack in Hong Kong? — Yes, Dangerously So…

A South China Morning Post advertisement at a Hong Kong subway station.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

When Alibaba founder Jack Ma bought the South China Morning Post in December of 2015, he held a meeting with his new employees. The billionaire tech tycoon from mainland China told reporters he wanted them to cover China more deeply, more broadly and more correctly.

“The more I know about the outside understanding of China,” Ma said in English to his newly-acquired editorial staff, “the more I feel that most of the things are not correct.”

He railed against “biased” foreign news coverage of China and said he wanted the paper to rise above the rest.

The South China Morning Post is considered by many to be the paper of record in Hong Kong. It was founded in 1903, and counts Rupert Murdoch and Hong Kong real estate tycoon Robert Kuok among its past owners. In a city saturated with news, it’s the largest English-language daily, and was once among the most profitable newspapers on the planet.

In recent years, though, the Post‘s coverage of mainland China has gradually softened and it’s eliminated some of its content entirely: In early September, the paper shut down its Chinese-language website, deleting its archives.

And just this week, the Post announced it will, after 25 years, stop publishing Hong Kong Magazine, a popular weekly feature of the paper.

This didn’t start with Jack Ma.

Change Comes To The Post

When Wang Feng was hired as digital editor of the South China Morning Post in 2012, he was called into a meeting full of other newly-hired young mainland journalists with then-editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei.

“He shared his visions with us,” recalls Wang. “He convinced us that he wanted to make the paper even more authoritative, even more insightful on China. That’s something we all wanted.”

Wang Feng, now editor of the Chinese edition of the Financial Times, is the former digital editor of the South China Morning Post. He remembers stories deemed “too sensitive” being censored by editorial staff on a weekly basis while at the Post.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

Wang’s new boss was the newspaper’s first Chinese-born editor-in-chief, and as a former mainland journalist, that inspired him. But it didn’t take long for the inspiration to wear off.

“Some stories were, for example, killed at the editorial meetings in the brainstorming phase,” remembers Wang. “Other stories were downplayed, placed online only, instead of going to the paper, shortened and moved to less important pages or locations. Headlines changed. Certain quotes taken out, stuff like that.”

Wang says stories were either censored or spiked by his new editor-in-chief at least once a week, often through an email to him, “…saying ‘You probably need to change that headline.’ And obviously we ask why. ‘Well, because I told you so.’ Other times, he would just say, ‘That was too negative. The interviewee called. He didn’t like it.'”

Wang Xiangwei did not respond to an interview request from NPR. He left his position a month before Jack Ma bought the newspaper.

“I think South China Morning Post, you can think of it as a reflection of what Hong Kong is,” says David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong.

Bandurski says Hong Kong used to see itself as a guiding light to its northern neighbor. “And the idea was that ideas in Hong Kong and free space in Hong Kong could inspire China. I think we’re seeing the door is open now, and really the traffic is coming the other direction.”

An “Exclusive” Interview – With No Byline

In July, the South China Morning Post ran what it called an “exclusive” interview with detained Chinese legal activist Zhao Wei. She told the Post she regretted her activism.

“I have come to realize that I have taken the wrong path. I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person,” she was quoted as saying.

The article, which lacked a byline, was odd. Her own husband hadn’t been able to contact her in prison. How did the South China Morning Post? Yuen Chan, lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former South China Morning Post journalist, says it was the first time the paper was used as a tool by Beijing to publish a confession, which is usually how China’s government uses its own media. Chan says it shocked readers.

Former South China Morning Post journalist Yuen Chan is a lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She says the Post‘s readers were shocked when the paper ran a confession by a detained legal activist in mainland China – Beijing usually uses its own state-controlled media for such purposes.

Rob Schmitz/NPR

“They didn’t expect to see it there. They don’t really expect to see the English-language media also being manipulated. And I think that that really jolted them.”

The South China Morning Post declined an interview request, writing, “Editorial autonomy is one of the core values of the South China Morning Post…There is no change to this value.”

Yuen Chan says she’s not very surprised by the Post‘s new Beijing-friendly coverage, suggesting the newspaper hasn’t changed very much from its earliest days as the paper of record for the British colonialists.

“If you look at it in the early days, it was very much the paper that was read by and would have sources in the Hong Kong government, that being the colonial government. So personally I don’t feel that it’s such a huge shock to find that the South China Morning Post is now pro-establishment, except now the establishment has changed.”


Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying threatens to sue Apple Daily over ‘malicious’ editorial

By Stuart Lau
South China Morning Post

Chief executive issues legal letter to Apple Daily over commentary, complaining of allegations that could hurt his chances of winning re-election

Friday, September 30, 2016, 2:29pm

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying issued a legal letter to Apple Daily on Thursday over an editorial it published on September 8, demanding the Chinese-language paper stop making corruption ­allegations against him. Leung also wants Apple Daily to run a statement of retraction, pre-vetted by him, on its editorial page.

“The intention to obstruct Mr C.Y. Leung from exercising his fundamental right under Article 26 of the Basic Law and Article 21 of Section 8 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance to stand for the 2017 CE election in accordance with law is vicious and ­contrived,” Leung’s letter, issued by law firm Sit, Fung, Kwong & Shum, stated.

The editorial in question called on newly elected lawmakers to invoke the Legislative Council’s special powers to pursue Leung over the controversial payment of HK$50 million he ­received from Australian firm UGL before he took office in 2012.

“The usage of the false corruption allegation to prevent Mr C.Y. Leung from exercising his constitutional right to stand for the ­re-election … if he chooses to, demonstrates the very serious kind of malicious and injurious motive.”

The chief executive has yet to confirm whether he will seek a second term, but this is the clearest indication yet that he has it in mind.

Apple Daily published the legal letter on its website on Thursday but a government source said that it omitted part of the letter stating that the UK Serious Fraud Office “has decided not to start an investigation” into Leung.

Leung has repeatedly denied wrongdoing over the deal with UGL in 2011, months before he became chief executive. The engineering firm had sought to buy out insolvent property firm DTZ, of which Leung was a director.

The deal – made two days ­before Leung resigned from DTZ and the completion of the takeover – stipulated that he would ­receive the money in two instalments in 2012 and 2013. UGL and Leung said the money was to prevent him from forming or joining a rival firm within two years. In an “additional commitment” clause, Leung agreed to “[act] as a referee and adviser from time to time” if UGL asked.

The Independent Commission Against Corruption has been looking into allegations of corruption over the deal.

In his legal letter, Leung quoted Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as saying it was not necessary to disclose the commercial arrangement.

The letter also objected to the paper’s “disdainful” use of nicknames for Leung such as “689”, “Wolf Ying” and “Liar Ying” in a campaign against his leadership.

The term “689” refers to the number of votes from the 1,200-strong election committee that put him in office in 2012.

Chan Pui-man, the paper’s chief editor, dismissed Leung’s complaint that the editorial could make him un-electable as “ridiculous and laughable”.

“If we could be so powerful, we would really feel honoured,” ­Apple Daily quoted her as saying.

The Journalists Association expressed “shock and regret” over Leung’s legal action, saying he was causing public concern over freedom of speech.

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said Leung’s move would do no good to his public image.

This is the second time the city’s leader has threatened legal action against a local media outlet. In 2013, Leung issued legal letters to the Hong Kong Economic Journal and columnist Joseph Lian Yi-zheng over an article linking him to triad gangsters.

The newspaper printed an apology but insisted this was addressed to readers, not Leung, and said there would be no retraction.

In an interview with the Post earlier this year, Leung said Hong Kong had “very liberal libel laws” and the attacks he faced every day was “a part of life”.

“We don’t throw people behind bars because they attack the chief executive,” he said. “And I have been in this game for nearly 30 years now.”

Meanwhile, former pan-democrat lawmaker Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who now heads the Path of Democracy policy think tank, said he was invited to Shenzhen for a meeting with Feng Wei, deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, last week.

Tong said he told Feng that Beijing should consider replacing Leung after his term expires next year. “I told Feng that Leung was not the man who could mend the social split currently affecting Hong Kong,” he said.

Tong declined to reveal Feng’s response, but said the mainland official appeared to understand the problem.



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