It has long been known that big business in Hong Kong, obviously worried about Big Brother over the border, has boycotted Apple Daily, the territory’s most popular newspaper, because of the rocky relationship of its owner, media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, with Beijing.
But just how much Lai has been hammered turned up this week in 900-odd files apparently hacked from his personal computer and leaked to several pro-Beijing publications. What has happened to Lai is increasingly emblematic of the pressure that a wide range of Hong Kong’s independent press is under. That pressure stems from both local and Chinese governments, oligarchic owners and thugs employed by unknown sources to beat them up.
In February, Asia Sentinel reported that the press faces slow but relentless erosion of what has long been regarded as not only the freest and most diversified press in Asia outside Japan but what has traditionally been the most important listening post on China itself. That is critical today with the Chinese government cracking down on the New York Times and Bloomberg for reporting critically on the vast riches amassed by members of the families of China’s top leadership. And, as pressure increases on the Hong Kong and international press, the need for a free press is growing.
Yesterday, House News, Hong Kong’s answer to the hugely popular US-based Huffington Post, a pro-democracy website, closed shop. Tony Tsoi, who set up House News, said in announcing its closure: "I fear. The current atmosphere of political struggle is extremely unsettling. A number of the democratic camp members are being stalked, smeared, and having some old stories dug out. A wave of white terror envelops this society, and I feel it. And, as a businessman who often travels up to the mainland, I have to admit every time I cross the border I would get jittery. Am I just being paranoid? That feeling is inexplicable to outsiders. But what unsettles me most is my family also feels this pressure, and they worry about me all the time ... That breaks my heart."
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association has recorded several violent attacks on journalists, which were once rare in Hong Kong. One attack targeted Lai’s Next Media on June 30, 2013, when three masked men threatened distribution workers with knives and burned 26,000 copies of Apple Daily. Earlier the same month, in an attack relating to another media company, iSun Affairs publisher Chen Ping was beaten by a group of unidentified baton-wielding men. The Hong Kong-based magazine is known for outspoken reporting on sensitive mainland issues. The attacks came against a backdrop of restrictive legal measures.
By far the worst, however, was the February attack on Kevin Lau, former chief editor of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Ming Pao, who was slashed by two men in the back and legs as he was getting out of his car. Lau was rushed to hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery. While nine people have been arrested, no motive has been given. However, Ming Pao participated in an exhaustive study with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the offshore assets of China's leaders, including relatives of President Xi Jinping, former Premier Wen Jiabao and members of the National People's Congress, which led to published stories. After the stories ran but before he was attacked, Lau was removed from his position at Ming Pao for unknown reasons and the paper has since pulled in its horns on aggressive reporting.
But it is Jimmy Lai, with his devil-may-care newspaper, Apple Daily, who has been the focal point of attempts to browbeat the press through ad boycotts and other pressures. Lai was previously driven out of his most successful enterprise, the apparel manufacturer Giordano, because of its inability to operate in China after he called former Chinese premier Li Peng "the son of a turtle's egg with zero IQ" in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Lai retaliated by starting Apple Daily in 1995, which in the span of a few months became wildly popular.
The 900-odd files, apparently released in an attempt to embarrass Lai, instead have embarrassed Hong Kong’s business elite, with their abandonment of Lai’s newspaper operations despite the fact that he outsells every other publication in the city with a mixture of scandal, bloody accidents and freewheeling criticism of Beijing.
Files stolen from Lai’s personal records, according to a story in the South China Morning Post, described letters seeking meetings between his American-born aide, Mark Simon, with company officials such as Canning Fok Kin-ning, group managing director of Hutchison Whampoa, requesting meetings over their advertising boycotts.
“The banks are the big problem,” Simon said in an interview. “The latest–HSBC, Bank of East Asia, Stanchart. All the big developers are out. Any Chinese mainland company is out.”
Despite the boycott, Next Media appears to be doing fine. It paid a HK$12 million dividend to its shareholders in the last quarter. Its circulation, at 215,000 to 220,000, is the biggest in Hong Kong. In addition, Simon said, its digital viewing is dominant, with 14 million digital viewers per day.
The same can’t be said of many Hong Kong publications, which are being co-opted by Beijing-oriented buyouts and ownership. According to a 5,000 word analysis of Hong Kong’s press in February by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners have accepted appointments to the main political assemblies of China and are being absorbed into China’s political elite.
They include Charles Ho of the Sing Tao news group, Richard Li of Now TV and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and Peter Woo of i-Cable television. And, while in the past Beijing relied on discreet ways to carry messages to Hong Kong media owners, such as asking middlemen to speak with newspaper editors, today they are contacting editors and journalists directly, CPJ says, with the propaganda chief of China's representative agency calling to complain about critical coverage of Chief Executive candidate CY Leung during last year’s election.
Three reporters at the Journal told CPJ that since the Liaison Office's phone call, they were ordered to write fewer critical reports about Hong Kong's leader and to back up any negative statements about Leung or his government—even in opinion pieces—with substantive supporting evidence.
Nowhere have issues of self-censorship been more pointed than at the South China Morning Post, which has had a series of chief editors since Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation sold it to Chinese-Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993, and which in 2006 lost its English-language competition, The Standard, which used to hold its feet to the fire before it cut back to becoming a free paper and a throwaway.
One of Asia's richest tycoons, Kuok was selected as one of Beijing's advisers on Hong Kong's future in the run-up to the 1997 handover. He has been accused by Hong Kong media commentators of forcing the departures of a string of Post editors and reporters critical of Beijing.
The Hong Kong government has proposed or passed laws that threaten to undermine the nuts and bolts of newsgathering—and has failed to pass any that would broaden public access to information. Journalists have long called for a freedom of information law and an archiving of information law.
In fact, provisions of the city's privacy law that went into effect in April 2013 could subject journalists to five years in jail or fines up to HK$1 million (US$129,000) if they reveal information that "causes psychological harm" or "causes loss." The law also gives targets of investigative reporting the right to "request to access personal data" collected by journalists. Journalists may mount a defense that they "reasonably believe" they are reporting in the public interest, but that aspect of the law is vague and undefined.
With the mainstream media increasingly compromised, some journalists are pinning hope on the development of independent online news outlets. Unlike on the mainland, government censors do not control expression on the Internet.
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel