Hong Kong's besieged media were dealt another blow this week, with news that the editor-in-chief of the city's once most trusted Chinese-language newspaper will be replaced with a potentially pro-establishment editor.
Journalists at the daily newspaper Ming Pao were stunned after being told on Monday that Kevin Lau Chun-to, chief editor since 2012, would be moved to the parent company's new unit for electronic books and teaching materials.
Sin Wan-kei, a member of a new group styling itself the "Ming Pao staff concern group," told reporters Tuesday that Lau had led the staff in "resisting pressure from the invisible hands who try to meddle in the newsroom at critical moments."
The front-runner to be Lau's successor is Chong Tien-siong, a Malaysian living in Singapore who was previously chief editor of Nanyang Siang Pau, according to news reports and CPJ's sources. The South China Morning Post said Chong previously spoke out in favor of compulsory patriotic national education in Hong Kong, an initiative that was shelved last year after thousands of protesters took to the streets to criticize the program as an attempt to brainwash the city's children by the Chinese government in Beijing.
Tuesday, 90 percent of Ming Pao's 270-strong editorial staff signed a petition demanding an explanation from management, which 30 staff members read out in front of the newspaper offices. They urged management to meet with staff and to promise to uphold the existing editorial principles of Ming Pao.
A Ming Pao reporter told CPJ: "We fear that by parachuting in a Malaysian editor who doesn't have knowledge of Hong Kong to be the editor, our ability to monitor the government will be controlled. As Hong Kong is facing a crucial year ahead of political reform, we need an editor with the guts to bear all the pressure [to self-censor] and provide ample space to report impartially."
Another Ming Pao reporter told CPJ: "In the past our paper was able to focus more on China human rights coverage than other newspapers in Hong Kong, but perhaps that was because our owner's businesses in China hadn't been very successful, " the reporter speculated, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "But he has been more successful in China recently, with new manufacturing ventures in Guangxi. Some staff think that this could be a factor in Lau's dismissal."
Ming Pao is owned by Malaysian timber tycoon Tiong Hiew King. Tiong is a supporter of Sarawak's leading political party, which owns two pro-government Chinese-language newspapers in Malaysia.
In a statement posted to Ming Pao's website on Monday night, Lau was quoted as saying he was ready to take up the new post and had no plans to leave. In the statement, Ming Pao said that the newspaper had "gone through several chief editors but its editorial policy will remain unswerved."
The move comes amid concern that Hong Kong's press freedom is suffering at the hands of media owners who prioritize business interests in China. The Asia Sentinel reported that Lau's removal was related to Ming Pao's extensive coverage of the Hong Kong's refusal to grant a television license to independent start-up HKTV.
More than half of Hong Kong media owners have accepted appointments to the main political assemblies of China--the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The editor-in-chief of the city's most internationally recognized newspaper, the South China Morning Post's Wang Xiangwei, is a former member of the CPPCC.
A recent study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that the public's trust in local media has sunk to an all-time low. For more information on threats to media freedom in Hong Kong, see "China, local leaders threaten Hong Kong press freedom."
The author chooses not to be identified to avoid professional repercussions.
UPDATE: This blog has been corrected to reflect that Wang Xiangwei is a former member of the CPPCC. Wang has not been a member of the body since January 2013.