Wednesday, 20 April 2016

HK Press Freedom Under Threat?

Chong (holding microphone) talked to staff this morning about the layoffs
Today is yet another bad day for press freedom in Hong Kong.

Ming Pao abruptly fired one of its top editors as well as some other editorial staff apparently because of budget cuts, but many don't see the financial excuse as the real reason.

Executive editor Keung Kwok-yuen and others were let go, and some staffers wondered if the move was meant to punish "dissidents of editorial decisions" like Keung.

Keung Kwok-yuen was a highly respected editor at Ming Pao
A Ming Pao Staff Association spokesperson said Keung was fired by his boss, chief editor Chong Tien Siong at midnight this morning with immediate effect.

"We are extremely angry and upset about it," the spokesperson said.

Keung could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile a Ming Pao Group spokesperson explained the company had little choice but to lay off staff, including senior personnel in business and editorial departments.

The cut in staff is a recurring refrain in Hong Kong media these days, particularly print. Earlier this month Sing Tao News Corporation announced a pay cut of up to 20 percent of its senior news executives.

During a meeting with Ming Pao staff, Chong described Keung as his "most competent aide", and that he and Keung were the best paid employees in the newsroom, and that he was prepared to go if management decided so.

Editor Kevin Lau Chun-to was also let go, back in 2014
Keung is known for covering politically sensitive issues, such as the July 1 protest march in 2003 against Article 23 where some half a million people came out to the streets, and the campaign against national education in 2012.

"We express our utmost regret that a veteran and objective journalist like Keung... was no longer [welcome] at Ming Pao," said a joint statement from the Hong Kong Journalists Association and six industry unions.

His dismissal comes after more news about Hong Kong tycoons named in the Panama Papers was reported on the front page of Ming Pao today.

Chong took over Ming Pao in 2014 and is said to be a close ally to owner, fellow Malaysian Tiong Hiew King, a pro-Beijing businessman. The staff were surprised by Chong's appointment because of his lack of local knowledge.

He replaced Kevin Lau Chun-to who was chief editor at the time; you may recall Lau was later attacked by men with choppers.

Newspaper staff held a "pens down" protest earlier this year
On Chong's first day, staff surrounded his office and asked him to sign a charter of press freedom. Reporters asked him if Ming Pao would turn into a pro-government newspaper, but he replied he didn't know because he wasn't the chief editor at the time.

Then in February last year, Chong changed the front page of the paper after midnight, from a report on confidential documents about Tiananmen in 1989 that was already approved by top-level editors -- to a story about Alibaba chief Jack Ma Yun.

He later explained the decision was made according to "the logic of news", that the report on the Tiananmen documents was unchanged and published on other pages. Chong never explained what he meant by "the logic of news"...

The union didn't accept this explanation and held a one-hour "pens down" protest.

It doesn't sound like Chong has made many friends at Ming Pao since he was brought in about two years ago. And firing yet another respected editor is not the way to win brownie points.

Is this the tipping point to lead to a mass exodus of staff? Or are economic conditions such that people don't have much choice, but to stay because they at least have a job?

Tough times.

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