Another Blow to Hong Kong’s Independent Media

Ming Pao editor to be replaced over unhappiness over coverage of assault on media freedom

The gradual suffocation of free and diverse media in Hong Kong has gained momentum in recent weeks. The latest blow came on January 6 when the editor of Ming Pao, the respected Chinese-language daily, was fired.

Kevin Lau Chun-to is to be replaced by a Malaysian who is unlikely to know much about Hong Kong but who it is assumed will do the bidding of the paper’s owner, Sarawak-based timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King.

Tiong is a supporter of Sarawak’s leading political party which is part of the Malaysia’s Barisan ruling coalition and owner of two Chinese newspapers in Malaysia, including Sin Chew Jit Poh. The papers naturally follow the government line on most significant matters. Tiong’s wealth comes from cutting down tropical forest in a state headed for the past years by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud who has made himself and friends fabulously wealthy from logging concessions. Tiong’s group is also busy cutting down forests in Papua New Guinea.

Lau’s demise is understood to have stemmed from management’s unhappiness with its extensive coverage of another assault on media freedom and diversity: the refusal of the government to grant a television license to HKTV, a company headed by Ricky Wong Wai-kay, an entrepreneur known for his ability to generate lively and innovative programming.

Wong had invested a huge amount in his startup, confident that he would be given a free-to-air license as the government was supposedly committed to opening the field, currently controlled by two companies, to competition. The government’s own Broadcasting Authority had even recommended that HKTV be granted a license. But then the government made an about-turn and refused on the grounds that competition had to be “orderly”. Officials caved in to pressure from existing vested interests, notably one of the existing players, ATV, which is a loss-making, little watched mainland mouthpiece.

Beijing’s acolytes also worried that Wong, though without any overt political agenda, was too much of a self-made entrepreneur to be easily controlled. Indeed, Wong has not taken the rebuff lying down but sought a judicial review of the government’s about-face.

The Beijing acolytes are also seeking to stop another effort by Wong to acquire an outlet for his television programming. He came to a HK$142 million deal to buy from China Mobile its license to provide television by mobile phone. China Mobile is the sole possessor of such a license but has not used it.

However, that deal is now being questioned on the grounds that somehow China Mobile did not receive permission from the relevant authorities – whoever they may be – in Beijing to sell the license. This has all the appearance of a politically-inspired attempt to thwart Wong again. It seems likely to succeed, leaving Hong Kong media clearly subject to Beijing and the Hong Kong government a silent co-conspirator against Wong.

Ironically China Mobile has recently been the (politically inspired) beneficiary of a decision to deprive existing mobile phone license-holders of bandwith in order to open the market to further penetration by China Mobile.

The common theme running through all these media issues is the squeezing out of Hong Kong’s own entrepreneurs and creative personnel to make way for businessmen with non-media interests to protect through political means. It also means the replacement of journalists knowledgeable about Hong Kong and devoted to its interests. Tiong is thus following in the footsteps of fellow Malaysian Robert Kuok Hock Nien, owner of the South China Morning Post. That paper now has a mainland Chinese editor and assorted executives and editors from Singapore and Malaysia. Such foreigners are better trusted to be “patriotic Chinese” than the actual Chinese of Hong Kong.

For instance, William Zheng Wei, a former Singapore Press Holdings business editor, was named in April as chief editor of the SCMP’s new Chinese-language Web site with a mandate not to carry anything controversial. Robin Hu, the SCMP chief executive officer, held a town meeting with employees in which he said the revamped Chinese language website would avoid coverage of Hong Kong's increasingly rancorous political scene and instead play the role of booster for the city's attractions as a travel and business center.

That followed the appointment as editor in chief of the paper itself of Wang Xiangwei, a mainland journalist who traces his antecedents to the Chinese government’s state-owned China Daily as well as a member of the Jilin Chinese People’s Consultative Congress. In July 2012, 23 current and former journalists signed an open letter expressing concerns that “It is now widely believed that the paper's main priority is no longer to continue (its former tradition of independent reporting) but to please the authorities in Beijing.”

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