Reporters Without Borders (RSF) earlier this month released this year’s World Press Freedom Index, in which Hong Kong climbed from 70th position to 69th this year. Ironically, on Wednesday last week — the day the index was released — Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily fired its executive chief editor, Keung Kwok-yuen (姜國元), on grounds that the newspaper’s operation had become difficult.
When questioned by the newspaper staff, editor-in-chief Chong Tien Siong (鍾天祥) said: “The boss asked me to do it, so I followed the boss’ orders. Since I am in charge of this newspaper, I had to take the responsibility. Whether you like him or not.”
Chong is the kind of editor-in-chief who obeys the boss’ orders. Can people say the same for Keung?
On Feb. 1 last year, upon instructions from Chong, Ming Pao removed a front-page story about the Tiananmen Square Massacre on grounds that it should be the responsibility of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to respond to a report on Canada’s confidential student witness record of the massacre.
Keung lodged the strongest protest against the decision by tendering his resignation. The story was eventually published.
Chan King-fai (陳景輝), a social activist who wrote columns for Ming Pao every week, wrote in a column: “I used to read the Ming Pao. I don’t anymore” as an expression of his disapproval of the newspaper.
He criticized Chong of using his position to abuse public media, destroying Ming Pao’s credibility, distorting public opinion and misrepresenting the voice of Hong Kongers, calling these Chong’s “four sins.”
Chan’s article was originally scheduled to be published on Feb. 5, but was scrapped by Chong, which again led to protests. The article was published a day later.
Chan questioned Chong’s dismissal of Keung in his article by saying: “He got rid of Keung, the soul of Ming Pao. When Ming Pao can go so far as to remove its soul, what else is left of this newspaper?”
Chong is a former editor-in-chief of Malaysian newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau (南洋商報). In March 2014, he moved to Hong Kong and became Ming Pao’s first executive editor-in-chief. In October of the same year, then-chief editor Cheung Kin-por (張健波) retired and Chong became the interim editor-in-chief. In January last year, he succeeded Cheung.
The “boss” Chong keeps talking about is undoubtedly Beijing.
As for China’s ranking in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, it came in 176th, fifth from the bottom. Beijing was very unhappy about it and China’s state-run newspaper Global Times on Thursday last week published an editorial titled “What can you see from a careful look at the rankings of press freedom?” saying that RSF’s idea of media freedom is part of the Western political structure and does not fit with many developing nations.
As far as China is concerned, the “media constructiveness” could be even more important than media freedom.
The Global Times said media constructiveness as defined by China includes freedom of speech, public opinion, public oversight and the understanding that all of the above must fit the reality of the nations’ political, economic and social setting.
So, in China, “perhaps the purpose of the media is not to accentuate one’s absolute freedom and rights, but to explain things in the most appropriate way and with the most suitable degree of intensity under each and every different circumstance, thereby moving society forward.”
Therefore, when Ming Pao’s executive chief editor failed to report the Tiananmen Square Massacre as instructed by Beijing and when commentators criticized Ming Pao for sacrificing its freedom, which was the soul of the newspaper, the boss “had to” intervene in editorial decisions, even to the extent of removing articles, because anything that defies the Chinese Communist Party’s policies or instructions has to be regulated.
Interestingly, the particular article that the Global Times published did not mention Taiwan at all.
This year, Taiwan ranked No. 51, the same as last year, making Taiwan the top-ranked Asian nation.
However, RSF expressed concern that Taiwanese media are becoming more and more influenced by Beijing, a phenomenon that can be seen in the changing attitudes of some media outlets in recent news reports, as well as some news topics that have been blocked for being incompatible with the media owners’ stance.
The intangible, hard-to-define intervention of politics and media owners in what comes out of a newspaper’s editorial board is the real obstacle to the freedom of the media.
Kung Ling-shin is chair of the journalism department at Ming Chuan University.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
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