In the wake of the sudden dismissal of a senior newspaper editor in Hong Kong, there has been escalating worries of China continuing to extend its grip into Hong Kong and restricting freedom of the press.
Chief editor Keung Kwok-yuen was fired from his post at the Ming Pao, one of the most prestigious newspapers in Hong Kong
While the management of the newspaper has expressed that the firing was a result of cost-cutting measures, the paper’s angered journalists are accusing the management of having a more devious purpose.
The timing of the firing has raised suspicions, especially amongst furious journalists who have been able to put the motive behind the real story. Keung Kwo-yuen was let go the same day that the journalists had contributed to the release of a front page story revealing connections between Hong Kong celebrities, officials, and businessmen implicated in possible illegal financial activities in the Panama papers.
Indeed, Ming Pao is one of the papers that had worked in conjunction with the Internationl Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is headquartered in the District of Columbia.
This past month the ICTJ began its released of portions of millions of documents that show links between some of the world’s wealthiest and country’s most powerful politicians and offshores companies guilty of illegal economic activities.
It is clear that the chief editor was sacked from his job as retribution for publishing a front page story focused on the Panama Papers scandal, though the Ming Pao newspaper has refused to admit the real reason for the editor’s dismissal.
In response, the employees of the paper, represented by the Ming Pao Staff association, held a meeting with the Keung’s co-editor, Chong Tien Song. During the meeting, the staff requested further explanation about the true motivation for the firing.
Outcry over the dismissal did not just remain a point of contention in the newsroom. Political leaders in Hong Kong have also voiced their condemnations of the Ming Pao paper’s actions.
The leader of the opposition pro-democracy Civic Party, Alan Leong has echoed the general sentiment that the newspaper’s excuses are not believable when he said, “Cost-cutting is unacceptable as a reason for dismissing Mr. Keung. It shows how media owner and editors do not even bother to come up with better excuses anymore—no one would believe such an excuse.”
The dismissal has generated such alarm because Hong Kong has been faced with a similar situation in the fairly recent past. Just two years ago, Mr. Chong’s predecessor as chief editor, Kevin Lau Chun-to, was also fired in January 2014.
Similarly, the response at that time also led to protests among journalists who feared that the free press of Hong Kong’s most prestigious and independent-minded papers was being threatened by China’s Communist Party.
Mr. Lau’s dismissal also occurred whilst he was working in conjunction with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists when there had been another leak of offshore documents.
Furthermore, a month after his dismissal, Mr. Lau was attacked in Hong Kong by two men wielding a cleaver, leaving him with severe cuts.The two men involved stated that they had been bribed with 100,000 Hong Kong dollars (the equivalent of 12,900 U.S. dollars) to carry out the assault.
The attackers, who were sentenced to 19 years in prison, had possible ties to the Communist Party. Such suspicions have been fueled by the nondisclosure of information as to who hired the men and for what purpose.
Mr. Chong acting as Mr. Keung’s replacement may further signal that China is cracking down on Hong Kong’s press freedoms.
It is expected that Mr. Chong will keep his editorial line more in thinking with that of Beijing, which could change the tone of the Ming Pao paper.
Ming Pao has traditinoally published stories that have given a voice to people on the edge of Hong Kong society, and in doing so has also traditionally published pieces critical of those in power.
It was through the efforts of Mr. Keung that the newspaper had been able to maintain this level of editorial independence, which is now being threatened.
Although Hong Kong officially maintained its civil liberties and legal protections when the territory was handed over from Britain to Beijing in 1997, many fear that liberties like freedom of the press are being diminished as the Chinese government is trying to exercise greater control.
As media pressure intensifies, this incident shows that reporters are willing to step up to protect their editorial positions from Beijing’s increasingly prevalent influence.