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Hong Kong fears erosion of press freedom

Publication Date : 13-07-2014


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 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 Straits 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 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 Chong, also a Malaysian, to replace its chief editor who had been in the job for about two years. This invited charges that Chong was put there to temper the paper's investigative reporting.

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 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 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".

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.

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