Two years ago, around the time of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, the chief editor of investigative newspaper Ming Pao was brutally stabbed on the streets of Hong Kong.
Two years later, following Ming Pao’s front-page story linking top Hong Kong businessmen, celebrities and politicians to offshore accounts as revealed in the Panama Papers leak, its top news editor was abruptly sacked on April 19. Is it coincidence or is it another form of suppressing press freedom?
Ming Pao is one of Hong Kong’s most respected Chinese-language papers. Its management issued an official statement claiming the firing was a cost-cutting move. However, staff and journalist organizations are not buying it. They question the “saving resources” claim and held a rally with signs that said, “Not clear, not open.”
This latest incident calls into question the paper's editorial independence. It also calls attention to the greater question: is Hong Kong’s media once again under threat?
Emily Lau, chairwoman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, said, "The whole profession is trembling like a leaf because of political and economic pressures."
The Hong Kong Journalists Association said, "We are deeply worried and unsettled about the space and degree of freedom for local news."
According to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ report released one day after the firing, Hong Kong's press freedoms had dipped slightly in 2015 -- it is now ranked 69th in the world, down from 34th in 2010. (China is currently ranked 176 out of 180!) Even though the Hong Kong media could still cover sensitive stories, “the need to fight to protect their editorial positions from Beijing's influence is increasingly noticeable," its report stated.
A Hong Kong University survey of 1,006 respondents conducted between April 11-14 showed Hong Kongers’ satisfaction with press freedom has fallen to the lowest level since 1997, the year the former British colony was returned to China. More than half of the respondents believe local news media practiced self-censorship.
At the same time, a small comfort may be gleaned from Jack Ma’s pledge not to interfere in editorial decisions of the South China Morning Post, his new purchase. "I have neither the experience nor desire to interfere with the newsroom operation. I will not take part in the editorial decision-making," Ma said, nevertheless reserving the right to weigh in as a reader.”
Ma's Alibaba completed its purchase of SCMP, Hong Kong’s venerable English-language paper of record, in early April 2016.
(Read detailed articles on the state of Hong Kong’s and China’s press freedom in the April 2016 and February 2015 China Insight at www.chinainsight.info.)