Removal of Tiananmen Crackdown Story Prompts Questions in Hong Kong

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Staff of the newspaper 'Ming Pao' (C) carry a banner as they march among protesters during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014.
Staff of the newspaper 'Ming Pao' (C) carry a banner as they march among protesters during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong, March 2, 2014.

Journalists and pan-democratic politicians in Hong Kong have hit out a decision by one of the city's most respected newspapers to cancel an article on the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square mass protests.

Staff at the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper, which removed former editor Kevin Lau last January, have asked the paper's editor-in-chief to explain why he chose to override a unanimous decision on Sunday by the paper's editorial board to run the story on Monday's front page.

The report was based on recently released diplomatic cables from Canada, and included a student's eyewitness account of the bloodshed that ensued when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) cleared the protests with tanks and machine guns.

Ming Pao editor-in-chief Chong Tien-siong has so far made no response to calls for an explanation, and repeated requests for an interview were met with the information that he wasn't in the office on Monday.

According to the paper's staff, Chong initially made no objection to the plan, but later ordered that the Tiananmen story be replaced with a feature about mainland Chinese Internet giant Alibaba as a role model for young, would-be entrepreneurs.

Ming Pao union leader Chum Shun-kin said the story that Chong pulled contained details about the contemporary history of the massacre, including eyewitness accounts of the killing of civilians.

"Maybe some people are thinking that, as editor-in-chief, he has the right to change the front page," Chum told RFA in a recent interview. "But the question is, whether it was reasonable to do so."

"If the entire editorial staff of the newspaper thought that this was a good story, why is he unilaterally ignoring them?"

Questionable judgement

Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo said Chong had shown questionable news judgement, and appears to be want to shield Beijing from embarrassment, instead of acting in the interests of the public and protecting their right to information, the Economic Journal reported.

Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau meanwhile called on Chong to explain his actions to staff and readers, as the incident could affect the Ming Pao's credibility.

Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) spokeswoman Shum Yee-lan called on Chong to "communicate" with his own staff.

"He shouldn't use his power to make changes whenever he feels like it," Shum said.

The HKJA said it had been "concerned" about the Ming Pao after Chong replaced Lau.

"Now, not long after officially taking over, editor-in-chief Chong has suddenly changed the top story," it said in a statement on its website.

"This association believes that, in using his power as editor-in-chief to make unilateral and concrete decisions, Chong Tien-siong has taken leave of the current system in the editorial department," it said.

Erosion of freedoms

Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, the former British colony was promised the continuation of its existing freedoms and a "high degree of autonomy."

But journalists and political commentators say Hong Kong's formerly free press is seeing its "darkest days" yet in what is likely a harbinger of further erosion of the city's traditional freedoms.

In a recent annual report, the HKJA pointed to a series of "grave attacks, both physical and otherwise in the past 12 months," including a brutal knife attack on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau, the sacking of Commercial Radio talk-show host Li Wei-ling and the removal of other prominent journalists from senior editorial positions.

Advertising boycotts by major companies and the refusal of licenses to pro-democracy media, and a major cyberattack on the Apple Daily website in June, have also been cited as reasons for concern.

A former Hong Kong talk show host who quit his job amid fears for his personal safety said last month that the threat to press freedom in the city had become apparent as early as 2004, seven years after the handover.

Albert Cheng, who once hosted the free-ranging political discussion show Teacup in a Storm, said he had been threatened physically that year, and later resigned from the show.

Frog in a saucepan

On Jan. 15, Cheng wrote in the South China Morning Post that the territory was like a frog in a saucepan of water that is heating up slowly.

"When the poor amphibian finally senses danger, it is too late to jump out," Cheng wrote in a response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

"We in Hong Kong are acting like the metaphorical frog," wrote Cheng, whose raucous chat show with its jaunty theme tune and tea-pouring sound-effect was once a feature of daily life in the city.

"Self-censorship, physical intimidation, brutal attacks and pressure from the authorities are rampant in the local media arena," he wrote. "Freedom of speech and the press has been on a gradual, slippery slope."

"Our collective inability, or unwillingness, to react swiftly to such threats will only end in one result," Cheng wrote. "Before long, there will be a boiled frog in the pot."

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Shi Shan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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