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Concerns over possibility of foreigner helming HK newspaper
Publication Date : 15-01-2014
The prospect of a foreigner helming one of Hong Kong's most influential Chinese-language dailies has caused local journalists and media watchers to worry that the city's freewheeling media is being curbed progressively.
Chong Tien Siong, 56, a Malaysian, is a front runner for the post of chief editor at Ming Pao Daily News. This makes Chong - who was chief editor of Nanyang Siang Pau in Malaysia and also deputy foreign editor at Singapore Press Holdings' Lianhe Zaobao - the first foreigner to be considered for the top job at a local Chinese-language paper here.
Since outgoing chief editor Kevin Lau has been on the job for only less than two years, the sudden leadership change prompted speculation that it is aimed at mollifying Beijing. Lau will move to Ming Pao's electronic books and teaching materials division.
Ming Pao's owner is Malaysian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King, whose conglomerate Rimbunan Hijau (RH) has investments valued at HK$3 billion (US$386 million) in China, ranging from mining to oilfields, according to Khor Yu Leng, an industry analyst at Segi Enam Advisors.
RH is also a key partner in a Sino-Malaysian project to build two joint industrial parks, one in Pahang and the other in Guangxi.
Another theory for the change is that Tiong, a supporter of disgraced Chongqing leader Bo Xilai, is making amends for having backed the wrong horse, news website House News reported.
Hence, the worry now is whether Ming Pao, known for its investigative reports and authoritative analyses on both China and Hong Kong, will have its edge blunted under a new chief, especially in a year when the city is facing challenges such as controversial constitutional reforms and the Occupy Central movement.
To Yiu Ming, a Ming Pao columnist who teaches journalism at Baptist University, has started a petition against such a decision.
"The role of a chief editor is to be a buffer between management and editorial. He or she should have a good understanding of Hong Kong and should uphold the values - such as freedom and human rights - that we treasure," he told The Straits Times.
"So, we wonder if a foreigner will stand up for our core values when the time comes."
Another cause for worry is that Chong's experience was gained largely in Malaysia, which is ranked lower than Hong Kong in press freedom, he added.
Some 90 academics have signed the petition so far.
A second petition demanding an answer from Ming Pao's management has signatures from more than 90 per cent of its 270- strong editorial staff and from about 270 former journalists.
Some are also asking why RH - the daily's owner for the past 19 years - is interfering, if indeed that is the case, only now.
Another question is whether it is fair to assume that a foreigner will not be able to uphold the same standards even before he has started.
Newspaper columnist Carmen Poon, a supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying, wrote in Headline Daily News: "A Malaysian editor may not be a villain, and neither is a Hong Kong editor necessarily a good person."
Lau, seeking to calm jitters in an essay this week, noted that Ming Pao has a 55-year heritage of upholding media freedom.
"We must have a certain level of confidence in this tradition."
But in today's Hong Kong, which is "very politicised", parachuting in a foreigner as an editor is a sensitive matter, said Man Cheuk Fei, vice-chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists. "Hong Kong has been very politicised, and it takes time to build up trust," he said.
It does not help that the spectre of censorship has been raised regularly in recent years. The South China Morning Post's appointment of mainland-born Wang Xiangwei as editor in 2012 attracted controversy.
There have also been changes at other media outlets such as the Hong Kong Economic Journal and Commercial Radio, where outspoken journalists have quit or been moved to less prominent positions.
Many see these disparate moves, when taken together, as suggesting "some sort of concerted pressure on the media".
To said: "We don't know what is going on behind the scenes. But the goal appears to be the same - watering down the power of the media."