HONG KONG, June 20 (Reuters) - A prominent Hong Kong newspaper has come under fire for downplaying coverage of the death of a Chinese dissident, stoking new concerns that Communist Party rulers in Beijing are seeking to limit the former British colony’s media freedoms.
In a tumultuous year for Hong Kong that will see a new pro-Beijing leader take power on July 1, the 15th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule, the controversy involving the South China Morning Post has focused attention on perceived attempts by Beijing to rein in moves towards democracy.
On June 7, the English-language Post printed a full story on the suspicious death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang in hospital on the mainland, but in an abrupt about-turn, cut the story back to a news brief buried in the back pages.
Li had just been released from more than 22 years in jail for his role in the June 4, 1989, pro-democracy protests in Beijing when he was found dead in hospital in Hunan province, his neck tied with a noose made from bandages. Authorities said it was suicide, but his family suspect foul play.
Prominent coverage by other Hong Kong media helped generate a public outcry, protests and a rare request by Hong Kong’s leader for an investigation into the tragedy by Beijing.
In a tense email exchange circulated widely in media circles, Alex Price, a sub-editor at the paper, asked his Chinese editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei, why the story was cut down in a way that “looks an awful lot like self-censorship”.
“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,” replied Wang, a member of the advisory body for China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress.
The reply triggered a newsroom backlash at the Post, where reporters say they’ve long been concerned by a creeping, invisible Beijing hand. A petition was signed by several senior staff, demanding full transparency and press freedoms.
The paper, one of Asia’s leading English dailies run by tycoon Robert Kuok, has long triggered concerns about its editorial policy towards China, including the firing of a Beijing bureau chief in 2002 also after what he called attempts by editors, including Wang Xiangwei, to make its China coverage less critical of Beijing.
Li’s death under tight police surveillance even after his release from jail and the flight of blind activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest are two recent examples of China’s iron-fisted approach towards dissidents and rights activists in the run-up to a pivotal leadership transition later this year.
“Journalistic ethics are at stake. The credibility of the South China Morning Post is at stake. Your staff - and readers - deserve an answer,” wrote Price in his email exchange with Wang.
In a statement to staff, Wang denied he’d tried to downplay the story, but said the matter “should have been resolved in a much more constructive way” and that the paper’s reporting of Li’s death in subsequent days had been extensive.
The Hong Kong Journalists Association’s chairperson, Mak Yin-ting, expressed concern. She added a survey to be released this weekend would again show a steady “deterioration” of press freedoms in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover.
Tens of thousands turned out for a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong this month in memory of the bloody June 4 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 as China moved to halt Internet searches related to the killings. (Reporting by James Pomfret and Sisi Tang; Editing by Nick Macfie)