Ming Pao editor to be replaced over unhappiness over coverage of assault on media freedom
The gradual suffocation of free and
diverse media in Hong Kong has gained momentum in recent weeks. The latest blow
came on January 6 when the editor of Ming Pao, the respected Chinese-language
daily, was fired.
Kevin Lau Chun-to is to be replaced
by a Malaysian who is unlikely to know much about Hong Kong but who it is
assumed will do the bidding of the paper’s owner, Sarawak-based timber tycoon
Tiong Hiew King.
Tiong is a supporter of Sarawak’s leading
political party which is part of the Malaysia’s Barisan ruling coalition and
owner of two Chinese newspapers in Malaysia, including Sin Chew Jit Poh. The
papers naturally follow the government line on most significant matters.
Tiong’s wealth comes from cutting down tropical forest in a state headed for
the past years by Chief Minister Taib Mahmud who has made himself and friends
fabulously wealthy from logging concessions. Tiong’s group is also busy cutting
down forests in Papua New Guinea.
Lau’s demise is understood to have
stemmed from management’s unhappiness with its extensive coverage of another
assault on media freedom and diversity: the refusal of the government to grant
a television license to HKTV, a company headed by Ricky Wong Wai-kay, an entrepreneur
known for his ability to generate lively and innovative programming.
Wong had invested a huge amount in
his startup, confident that he would be given a free-to-air license as the
government was supposedly committed to opening the field, currently controlled
by two companies, to competition. The government’s own Broadcasting Authority
had even recommended that HKTV be granted a license. But then the government
made an about-turn and refused on the grounds that competition had to be
“orderly”. Officials caved in to pressure from existing vested interests,
notably one of the existing players, ATV, which is a loss-making, little
watched mainland mouthpiece.
Beijing’s acolytes also worried that
Wong, though without any overt political agenda, was too much of a self-made
entrepreneur to be easily controlled. Indeed, Wong has not taken the rebuff
lying down but sought a judicial review of the government’s about-face.
The Beijing acolytes are also seeking
to stop another effort by Wong to acquire an outlet for his television
programming. He came to a HK$142 million deal to buy from China Mobile its
license to provide television by mobile phone. China Mobile is the sole
possessor of such a license but has not used it.
However, that deal is now being
questioned on the grounds that somehow China Mobile did not receive permission
from the relevant authorities – whoever they may be – in Beijing to sell the
license. This has all the appearance of a politically-inspired attempt to
thwart Wong again. It seems likely to succeed, leaving Hong Kong media clearly
subject to Beijing and the Hong Kong government a silent co-conspirator against
Ironically China Mobile has recently
been the (politically inspired) beneficiary of a decision to deprive existing
mobile phone license-holders of bandwith in order to open the market to further
penetration by China Mobile.
The common theme running through all
these media issues is the squeezing out of Hong Kong’s own entrepreneurs and
creative personnel to make way for businessmen with non-media interests to
protect through political means. It also means the replacement of journalists
knowledgeable about Hong Kong and devoted to its interests. Tiong is thus
following in the footsteps of fellow Malaysian Robert Kuok Hock Nien, owner of
the South China Morning Post. That paper now has a mainland Chinese editor and
assorted executives and editors from Singapore and Malaysia. Such foreigners
are better trusted to be “patriotic Chinese” than the actual Chinese of Hong
For instance, William Zheng Wei, a
former Singapore Press Holdings business editor, was named in April as chief
editor of the SCMP’s new Chinese-language Web site with a mandate not to carry
anything controversial. Robin Hu, the SCMP chief executive officer, held a town
meeting with employees in which he said the revamped Chinese language website
would avoid coverage of Hong Kong's increasingly rancorous political scene and
instead play the role of booster for the city's attractions as a travel and
That followed the appointment as
editor in chief of the paper itself of Wang Xiangwei, a mainland journalist who
traces his antecedents to the Chinese government’s state-owned China Daily as
well as a member of the Jilin Chinese People’s Consultative Congress. In July
2012, 23 current and former journalists signed an open letter expressing
concerns that “It is now widely believed that the paper's main priority is no
longer to continue (its former tradition of independent reporting) but to
please the authorities in Beijing.” ‘Asia Senitnel’