Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 5 News List

HK politics, cash conspire against `Mad Dog' Wong

UNFREE SPEECH?The removal of a celebrity from his no-holds-barred radio show angered fans and activists, but others say the market never lies

AP , HONG KONG

Fans of Raymond "Mad Dog" Wong (黃毓民) used to spend their evenings listening to the shock jock bash the Hong Kong government on his radio show.

But after the talk show host was sacked, about 2,000 of his listeners instead spent a recent Saturday night at a candlelit sit-in at a downtown park. They saw Wong's dismissal as the latest sign that their right to free speech was slipping away in the former British colony.

Not everyone agrees. Wong's former employer, Commercial Radio, said his departure was the result of a contract dispute, while some analysts say the move simply reflects a shift in listeners' tastes.

But free-speech advocates point to other outspoken radio personalities who say they were also chased off the radio. They say a blanket of silence has descended as a closely woven mixture of government pressure and self-censorship screens out free-thinking government critics.

"A program or a paper that can deal big destructive blows is missing on the scene. There's too much political risk," political commentator and satirist Leung Man-tao (梁文道) said.

Leung believes the outspoken anti-communist opinions of Wong, as well as those of sacked talkshow host Albert "Taipan" Cheng (鄭經翰) -- both loud, often obnoxious figures who many found offensive -- became too much of a risk for Commercial Radio, which depends largely on advertising revenue.

"In this city, politics and big business are very closely connected," Leung said. "These hosts have had a huge influence on Hong Kong over the past few years simply with what they say and the way they say it. But now their voices are disappearing because that influence has become too big a burden for the commercial station."

Hong Kong businesses typically shy away from democracy advocates and opposition figures for fear of jeopardizing their investments by offending Beijing.

Hong Kong was in an uproar last August when Wong and Cheng suddenly left the air within days of each other amid alleged pressure and intimidation.

Cheng's morning show, Teacup in a Storm, was so influential it earned him the nickname of Hong Kong's "chief executive before noon." He went on to become a lawmaker.

Meanwhile, Wong returned to the radio, but lost his prime-time weekday evening show and had to settle for a marginal late Saturday slot when few people listen.

Cheng agreed that the local media's self-censorship rather than overt government pressure spelled the end of the popular shock-jocks' broadcasting careers.

"Dissenting voices get marginalized. No paper or radio station is truly independent at all -- they're all controlled by big businesses," he said.

"All look toward the mainland Chinese market and fight to appeal to Chinese leaders. Hong Kong has a civilized surface but in truth the media gets no space at all," he said.

China exerts ever more influence over Hong Kong's affairs, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association declared in its latest annual report.

"The bulwark for the protection of freedom of expression -- the `one country, two systems' concept, itself inherently fragile -- has been eroded gradually but inexorably since the handover," the report said.

Even so, Hong Kong enjoys certain freedoms that mainland Chinese only dream about. Political cartoons and anti-government rallies get free play, and evidence of outright censorship is tough to spot. Some academics wonder if the threat of censorship has been overplayed and whether claims of systematic erosion are pure conspiracy theory.

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