Posted: Feb. 26, 2014
“Not dead yet,” was the punch line for a recent Apple Daily cartoon. It only meant to satirize the South China Morning Post, usually prefixed these days with the word “red” to signify concerns about the mainland-oriented slant of its coverage. Context of the joke is the recent summary dismissal of an outspoken government critic at Commercial Radio and the transfer of a pro-democracy editor to an a-political post at Ming Pao Daily. Specific reasons remain unknown to most everyone except those directly involved in the two cases, allowing anxious onlookers to assume the worst. In Apple’s February 14 cartoon spoof, Morning Post staffers, anticipating the same fate, are writing their obituaries … so everyone will at least know who did them in and why. But a cadaverous arm reaches out from inside its mock coffin to write “I’m not dead yet” … signifying for better and for worse the state of Hong Kong’s media overall.
Each perceived threat comes with an immediate push-back from journalists, activists, and politicians. Some say they are fighting a losing battle against the combined weight of big-business media management and constant pressures for political conformity. Wealthy and conservative, owners and managers all tend to have cross-border mainland interests and pressures are “leveraged” in that way. Yet the net effect looks more like a never-ending struggle with the motto “not dead yet” hovering over all. Too soon to say for certain the battle is lost. But if resistance waivers it soon will be say those concerned.
They have only to point, for example, to the small rally in support of press freedom planned for Sunday February 23 by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA). Provisionally OK’d by the authorities, approval was then withdrawn on grounds another group had applied first to demonstrate at the very same time and place. The group: something new on the local scene calling itself the Council on Media Conduct Supervision. A decade ago there were no such groups. Now they’re appearing at every turn … like the new one vowing to monitor the decisions of court judges deemed too “independent.”
THE DOWNWARD SLIDE
Several developments have combined recently to set alarm bells ringing. Besides the personnel changes at Ming Pao and Commercial Radio, another cause for concern is Hong Kong’s demotion on the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. The report was posted online earlier this month by Reporters Without Borders. In 2002, the Paris-based monitor ranked Hong Kong in 18th place world wide. By 2013, Hong Kong had slid to 58th place and has dropped to 61st in the most recent report. Standards for judging combine questions to assess pluralism in media ownership, independence from government, self-censorship, legislative safeguards, transparency, production quality, and violence against media providers.
The 2014 report declared media independence to be under threat in Hong Kong, Macau, andTaiwan due specifically to growing Chinese economic weight being used by Beijing to extend its political influence over the media in all three localities. On Hong Kong, it said: “The Chinese Communist Party’s growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its ‘Liaison Office’ is increasingly compromising media pluralism there.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists elaborated in its own just-issued report on Hong Kong saying media self-censorship under constant mainland pressure has become a pervasive concern. The public assumes it and media workers say the same.*
Among the CPJ’s sources is a University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Poll, conducted regularly since 1997, that asks whether the local news media practices self-censorship. In October 2013, over 50% of respondents said yes, the highest number since the survey began in September 1997. In another HKU POP poll, public satisfaction with Hong Kong’s press freedom dropped from 74.6% in 2009, to 27% in 2013.
The CPJ report also highlighted a new practice here of physically assaulting journalists. There have been several incidents. An unrepentant patriotic enthusiast struck the first known political blow in Victoria Park last year on January First (Jan. 9, 2013 post).
The Hong Kong Journalists Association’s 2013 Annual Report, issued last July, called the year just past the worst for press freedom since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The report chronicled events marking Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s first year in office. He was inaugurated on July 1, 2012. Those that stood out were the growing difficulty of gathering news from government sources, the continuing effort by Beijing to co-opt media owners, and the apparently new attempts by Beijing’s Liaison Office personnel here to contact and pressure editors and journalists directly. Liaison Office personnel are also currently out and about promoting Beijing’s message on electoral reform in open and direct ways that they previously avoided. Ditto the practice of contributing opinion pieces to local newspapers … sometimes directly and sometimes hidden under pseudonyms.
A Chinese University survey conducted in late 2013 also found public trust in the local media to be at a new low. In this survey, on a scale of one to 10, the average overall rating was 6.18 points, down from 6.36 in 2010. Ironically, the South China Morning Post received the highest print media trustworthy rating (6.98) whereas Apple ranked 17th just above the pro-Beijing papers. Public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong and Commercial Radio ranked highest among the electronic media (Ming Pao, Jan. 3 and 29).
A LOSING BATTLE?
The HKJA’s February 23 Sunday afternoon demo went ahead as originally planned. With the authorities about to receive another black mark on the press freedom front, a solution materialized. The Council on Media Conduct Supervision rallied nearby with something under a hundred participants. They had planned for 800. Except for the initial uncertainty, everything went off smoothly for HKJA organizers although they had planned for a turnout of about 1,700 and it was many times greater (they said 6,000, police 2,200). The street-corner intersection near the Chief Executive’s office was nowhere near large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to stay for the speeches that concluded the protest after a short march from the old Legislative Council building to the new.
Contributing to the success of the HKJA demonstration for press freedom was a new group just formed to promote the same aims. It calls itself the Independent Commentators Association [ 獨立評論人協會 ], that has just been organized by several prominent media pundits. They are vowing to speak out for press freedom against what they see as growing indications of danger. They fault the increasingly open political pressure from Beijing sources as well as the failure of Leung Chun-ying’s administration to show any interest in the problem except for ritual statements of respect for press freedom.
Among the members of the new group is Allen Lee Peng-fei, a pre-1997 Legislative Councilor and founder of the Liberal Party who was tapped by Beijing as a safe bet to join the National People’s Congress after 1997. He has since crossed over to the pro-democracy side of Hong Kong’s political spectrum. Another member is Joseph Wong Wing-ping, a retired ranking government official. Two others are Ching Cheong and Johnny Lau Yui-siu who both began their journalistic careers as pro-Beijing loyalists and have since become strong advocates of free speech.
As for the two personnel moves that provoked the latest upsurge of concern, all agree there is no concrete evidence to prove official interference whether from Beijing’s Liaison Office or from the Hong Kong government. But political atmospherics here have developed to a point where direct interference isn’t really necessary. Day-to-day newsroom dynamics regularly pit the interests of conservative owners, managers, and advertisers against the concerns of pro-democracy editors, writers, and program hosts.
That outspoken Commercial Radio talk-show personality, Li Wei-ling, was disliked by Beijing’s Liaison Office is an old story (HKJA 2013 Annual Report, p. 27). But as it happened, the station’s license is coming up for renewal, her show was suddenly moved to a less prominent slot last November, and she says a well-placed friend warned her she was on Leung Chun-ying’s hit list. Whatever the case, she was an outspoken political critic and she was fired without notice on February 12. Pressed to explain, the station’s general manager said only that a lack of trust had developed between Li and management after her November demotion. In the past, outspoken commentators have been fired and others hired so the long-term political implications of Li Wei-ling’s dramatic exit … she wasn’t even allowed to clear her desk … remain to be seen.
The other case is potentially more serious because the Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily has become Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy newspaper … independent, liberal, and reliable, albeit a shade too moderate for some. Apple is the favorite for its stronger combative stance and anti-communist hazing. But the paper’s tabloid-ized presentations can’t compete with Ming Pao’s news coverage and investigative reporting.
Unlike Li Wei-ling, Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau Chun-to accepted his transfer without comment or complaint. He was removed from his position suddenly, last December, and agreed to accept another as head of the company’s new digital operations unit. His colleagues, however, united in dismay and disbelief after learning that Lau’s replacement was likely to be a Malaysian editor with reputed conservative pro-Beijing inclinations who is currently living in Singapore. He was the first choice of the paper’s current owner, a Malaysian lumber magnate who has the usual business interests and connections in China.
Since Malaysia and Singapore are not known as bastions of press freedom the gathering constellation of forces does not look good for Ming Pao. The reshuffle also could not have come at a more sensitive time given the current anxieties over the ongoing universal suffrage saga and loyalist-conservative agitation to influence public opinion in deference to Beijing’s demands. Pan-democrats have come to rely on Ming Pao to give them a fair hearing and get their message across.
In an effort to block the proposed personnel changes, concerned staff demanded meetings with management and when these failed to produce results staged demonstrations and protests. Several hundred wore black and gathered for a mournful display of dissent one Sunday afternoon outside the paper’s production center. There were vigils and petitions. The Democratic Party’s founder Martin Lee left his weekly back page column blank, in memoriam for the paper’s loss and in anticipation of more to come. Several other columnists did the same. But to no avail. Management let it be known that they had consulted the now retired paper’s venerable founder and first editor-in-chief, Jin Yong (Louis Cha), who gave his blessing to the moves allegedly sparked by an altercation between Lau and the editor-to-be for which Lau was responsible. The editor-to-be is a friend of the owner.
The new leadership lineup schedule has yet to be finalized, however, and management has continued to promise that Ming Pao’s editorial direction will most definitely not change. There are, of course, some critics who say it changed long ago … but that’s another story. Actually, the story has changed many times since the paper was founded in 1959, and Louis Cha himself was no great fan of democratic political reform back in the day. The next chapter will begin on March 1 when the new man, Chong Tien-siong, is due to arrive from Singapore.
Management’s only concession to the staff insurrection, besides promising no change, has been to ease Chong into the top newsroom leadership job with an interim assignment as managing editor. He will be working with Kevin Lau’s temporary replacement. So far no one has quit or been fired or gone on strike, but plans are being made just in case. Safe to say readers and writers will be watching every story and every headline and Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily is always on stand-by, ready to raise the alarm … assuming his pockets are deep enough to compensate indefinitely for the absence of loyalist advertizing revenue.