Furor over Hong Kong Editor's Decision Continues

The tumult at Hong Kong’s leading English language daily, the South China Morning Post continued today, with a relativelty small and obviously engineered rally in front of the Post’s headquarters by chanting demonstrators who burned copies of the paper, banged on the doors and stuck posters on the building over the Post’s coverage of the death of dissident Li Wangyang in China. The protesters scuffled briefly with police.

In addition, some 40 members of the paper’s staff, including metro staff, sub-editors, the opinion pages and the China coverage pages, signed a petition demanding to know why the paper’s editor in chief, Wang Xiangwei, had drastically cut back a story on Li’s death.

Li died in a Hunan hospital, allegedly a suicide according to Chinese authorities, although he was nearly blind and deaf after years of mistreatment in captivity as a result of his leadership of the Tiananamen Square student protests of 1989. The death, reported widely in the Chinese language press the same day it happened has raised a furor not only in Hong Kong but in China as well, with authorities coming under strong pressure to provide answers about his death.

Wang said in a statement to the staff that he decided to brief the story on the first day because he felt the paper didn’t possess enough facts for a full story. According to an email to Asia Sentinel from an insider, the paper actually had a story on Li’s death in its first edition but Wang, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Council and the paper’s first mainland-born editor, chose to pull the story and cut it back to a brief between editions, replacing it with a two-day-old story about a chat between students and Lee Teng-hui, who left the Taiwan presidency in 2000.

When Alex Price, a senior sub-editor, questioned Wang’s decision, he answered that he didn’t have to justify his decisions to the staff. Price circulated the exchange of emails to other members of the Post’s staff, who forwarded it to Asia Sentinel.

In the petition, the signatories said that “freedom of the press is the cornerstone of Hong Kong’s success. But recent events have put our paper's credibility at stake. A transparent and open management style is important to all of us and we believe this can be reflected in the way you handle this matter, by giving us a full picture of what happened, including your decision to reduce the first-day coverage of the incident, and that you will address Price's concern about being intimidated by your comment in the email exchange.

“The SCMP is the only English broadsheet in Hong Kong. We embrace the principle of printing news for public interest. We hope our paper will contribute to the democratic development and the protection of human rights in China. We believe openness will ensure our long-term success. We hope that you will assure us the editorial department of the SCMP will continue to enjoy a free working environment.”

The episode has become a flashpoint inside the paper, with concern growing that Wang is pushing out objective reporters and editors and replacing them, particularly in China coverage, with Chinese loyalists. The South China Morning Post has long been considered a largely objective observer of affairs in the mainland and an important window into the country for diplomats, businessmen and others, giving it an outsize importance in the region.

A Post editor told Asia Sentinel that since Wang took over as editor in chief, all new recruitment has been slanted to Wang’s network, chiefly journalists from the state-owned English-language China Daily in Beijing, which is known mainly for its slavish attention to whatever the Communist Party wants printed – or doesn’t want printed.

The position of managing editor, the paper’s second in command, has been vacant for months since the departure of David Lague, an ally of the former editor in chief, Reginald Chua, who left in March 2011. Wang’s ally has been Cheong Yip Seng, the former editor-in-chief of the Straits Times of Singapore, a notoriously malleable publication to government leaders. Cheong first came as a consultant but has now extended his contract for a full year. Cliff Buddle, who was acting editor, has been shunted off to a lesser position. Neither Wang nor Cheong is reportedly interested in recruiting western journalists.

The paper recently placed a classified advertisement seeking to fill the managing editor position, saying applicants should “Introduce best practices and operational improvements for the Editorial Department to meet high quality standards,” would need “a thorough knowledge of the newspaper business and the various tasks performed by the editorial team. extensive experience in writing, editing and management positions with a national or regional publication, preferably with a sound knowledge of the Asian region, proven leadership capability, a strong sense of integrity, solid understanding of business principles, financial aspects of the information industry and group dynamics, ability to analyze situations quickly, make decisions when needed, lead news professionals, deal effectively with the public, function well as part of a team and delegate effectively, keep up with industry trends and possess a record of hiring good people and a commitment to diversity.”

A local editor, asked if he was considering applying, said “That is a can of Medusa-sized worms.” Medusa was the mythical monster woman who had snakes for hair and whose gaze petrified anyone who looked at her.