International Press Group Assails SCMP

The International Federation of Journalists, which claims to represent 600,000 journalists in 131 countries across the world, has expressed deep concern over the independence of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post in the wake of the emasculation of a story on the death of Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang.

The organization called on Wang Xiangwei, the mainland-born editor in chief of the paper, who was appointed in February over the misgivings of the city’s journalistic community, to resign his membership in the Jilin branch of the Chinese Political Consultative Conference, saying his membership leads to “questions as to his independence and impartiality.”

The newspaper hits well above its weight in the region as the English-language reference point for political reporting on China. Although it has been criticized in the past since ownership passed to the family of Malaysian sugar tycoon Robert Kuok in 1993, it remains the most complete journalistic record of what goes on inside the country for western observers. It has been allowed to establish news bureaus in Beijing and Shanghai which Hong Kong’s Chinese language press is denied. Although it has a strong edge on mainland reporting and leaders on China content, many are concerned that aggressive reporting is a thing of the past.

Sources inside the paper say the mood is increasingly darkening as the negative publicity ripples out, with the journalistic and marketing teams facing derision from their contacts. Wang is said to have adopted a permanents cowl and is interacting selectively with the Chinese staff he has hired from China, and is curt and abrupt with everybody else.

“Management has been seized with paranoia about Hong Kong media leaks,” a source said. “There have been admonishments to all staff, particularly editorial, not to speak to reporters from other organizations or to answer media queries. Everything is to be referred to the marketing department.”

Asia Sentinel first reported on misgivings over Wang’s appointment as chief editor on Feb. 2 and carried three stories about an exchange of emails between Wang and Alex Price, a senior sub-editor at the paper over the June reduction of a story to a brief about Li’s suspicious death in a Hunan hospital on June 6. The partly blind Li died a week after giving an interview to a Hong Kong television statement on his treatment in prison. He was said to have hanged himself, a report that caused a furor in China that is still going on.

The reports by Asia Sentinel and other publications claim that Wang directed staff to cover the story as briefly as possible, rather than giving the story the extensive coverage undertaken by other media outlets. When Price, emailed Wang for an explanation, Wang is alleged to have replied, “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”

In other worrying news, the South China Morning Post has recently discontinued the contracts of a number of its most experienced foreign journalists, the IFJ reported. Paul Mooney, an accomplished journalist who was recently celebrated with a number of Human Rights Press Awards in Hong Kong, was informed by Wang that his contract will not be renewed when it expires in September. Asia Sentinel carried Mooney’s story of his dismissal.

“Although Wang said the reason for not renewing my contract was budget cuts, I doubt that is the case”, Mooney told the journalism federation. “Wang never assigned any China news stories to me, preferring to ask journalists from Hong Kong to cover them”.

Mooney also recalled an occasion where Wang asked a Chinese journalist to conduct an interview with the Dalai Lama instead of him, despite the Dalai Lama already having accepted his request for an interview.

In addition to Mooney, two other experienced journalists from the paper’s China desk have left due to disagreements with Wang over news coverage.

“Confidence in the press relies upon public trust that the news is being reported free from political consideration”, IFJ Asia-Pacific said.

“As a publicly listed company, and one of Hong Kong’s oldest English language newspapers, the IFJ urges Wang Xiangwei to explain recent editorial and staffing decisions”.

The journalism federation also called for Robert Kuok, the Malaysian majority shareholder of the South China Morning Post, to investigate the claims of political censorship at the paper and report his findings to the public and its share-holders.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association recently announced the results of a media survey, which revealed that 92.7 percent of respondents from Hong Kong’s media believe that press freedom in the territory is being curtailed, with 79.2 percent of respondents also believing that self-censorship in Hong Kong is more serious a problem in 2012 than it was in 2005.

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