Journalists at the South China Morning Post, the foremost English-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, are up in arms over alleged censorship by their new editor-in-chief.
The controversy has emerged in public after an exchange of emails between the editor, Wang Xiangwei, and a senior sub-editor, Alex Price, representing many of the concerned editorial staff.
It concerns the way the Post initially reported the suspicious death on 6 June of a Tiananmen Square dissident, Li Wangyang, in a Hunan hospital. Though the story was carried at length in other papers, it was reduced to a brief in the Post.
Price sent Wang an email saying: “A lot of people are wondering why we nibbed the Li Wangyang story last night. It does seem rather odd. Any chance you can shed some light on the matter?”
Wang answered: “I made that decision.” When Price asked in a subsequent email: “Any chance you can say why? It’s just that to the outside world it looks an awful lot like self-censorship.”
Wang responded: “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”
Price didn’t let it go, and sent a further, longer, email:
“Li Wangyang, a good man died for his cause, and we turned it from a story into a brief. The rest of Hong Kong splashed on it
Your staff are understandably concerned by this. News is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations. Please explain the decision to reduce the suspicious death of Li Wangyang to a brief.
I need to be able to explain it to my friends who are asking why we did it. I’m sorry but your reply of, ‘it is my decision, if you don’t like it you know what to do’ is not enough in such a situation. Frankly it seems to be saying ‘shut up or go’…
The credibility of the South China Morning Post is at stake. Your staff – and readers – deserve an answer.”
The paper subsequently went all-out on the story, carried a focus page devoted to the matter, plus editorials, two columns by Wang and has run other stories since.
Li was found hanged in a hospital room and the authorities initially claimed suicide was the cause of death. After a post mortem, this was revised to “accidental death”.
Meanwhile, up to 25,000 people, including senior establishment figures in Hong Kong, took part in a protest march. The authorities have since ordered a criminal investigation.
Following the email exchanges, which have been widely distributed and published by the Asia Sentinel, Price is now said to fear for his job.
The controversy has raised fears that the Post, regarded as one of Asia’s most influential English-language voices, has begun to bow to Beijing under Wang, who is the paper’s first mainland-born editor and a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress.
Mak Yinting, chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, said: “I think it’s important for Wang Xiangwei to communicate with his colleagues… It is now a public issue because self-censorship will weaken the credibility of the paper. I urge the SCMP to explain to the public whether it was only bad judgment or self-censorship.”
When Xiangwei was appointed, many industry professionals had misgivings. The more optimistic hoped that the independent journalistic traditions at the century-old paper would prevail over political correctness.
The Asia Sentinel article has itself exposed other complaints about Xiangwei. At one point it said:
“It is generally acknowledged that the SCMP’s China news coverage, commentary and analysis is consistently superior to any international newspaper. That’s largely due to Xiangwei’s knowledge of, and access to, the inner networks of the Beijing government, party and academics.”
This elicited a comment from Wen Yiduo: “I take exception to your comments regarding Wang Xiangwei’s knowledge and access to people. Wang Xiangwei makes a zero contribution to the China section, aside from assigning meaningless and stupid stories.
“Anything good that appears in the China pages is due to the many knowledgeable reporters who cover China. If anything, Wang Xiangwei censors news or gets in the way.”
Category: Hong Kong