01/22/2014 09:59 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Hong Kong's Free Press In Danger As China Tightens Grip On Media

HONG KONG -- When news broke earlier this month that Kevin Lau Chun-to, chief editor of a prominent Chinese-language newspaper called Ming Pao, was to be replaced by a pro-Beijing outsider, it sent shockwaves through the city's news media.

Radio host and commentator Lee Wei-ling set the news in motion by sharing rumors of Lau's imminent departure on Facebook. Three days later, the former Ming Pao political editor and news director was still shaking.

"I've cried over this twice," said Lee, a battle-hardened media veteran whose "take-no-prisoners" style and outspoken criticism of the government has earned her both respect and enemies. "I can't sleep. Ming Pao's blood runs through my veins."

For many Hong Kong journalists and media observers, the reshuffling at Ming Pao is more than just a personnel issue: They see it as the latest test of Hong Kong's press freedom in the face of continued challenges and pressure from the government. Under Lau's leadership, the paper's journalists have been allowed to pursue investigations that have embarrassed those in power.

More than 16 years have passed since Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule with the promise of a high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems policy." While China's central government in Beijing was deemed responsible for Hong Kong's foreign affairs and national security, the former British colony was guaranteed that its way of life -- not least, its independent judiciary and free press -- would be preserved for a half century.

But to many here, the free press is increasingly being undermined by a creeping form of self-censorship, political pressure from leaders close to Beijing and the realities of the media market: State-backed Chinese companies are emerging as important advertisers, giving them the power to shape news coverage by threatening to yank their ads.

Pressure sometimes comes from Hong Kong companies that do business in China. Apple Daily -- whose reporters are barred from reporting in mainland China -- recently confirmed that major local banks have pulled ads from the newspaper, a sign that business can suffer if coverage offends those with ties to Beijing.

More than 90 percent of Ming Pao's editorial staff have signed a petition demanding that senior management guarantee the paper's continued editorial independence and explain its decision to remove Lau. Journalists' groups and academics voiced their concerns, and pro-democracy writer Martin Lee Chu-ming protested by leaving his regular column in the paper blank. Four other regular columnists followed suit, after their columns questioning the leadership change were pulled from the Canadian edition of the paper.

Ming Pao's management has confirmed that Lau is likely to be replaced by Chong Tien-siong, former chief editor of the Malaysian paper Nanyang Siang Pau. When working for that paper, Chong struck a deal with the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po to carry its stories.

But in acknowledgement of the outcry over the change in leadership, the paper's management has said that Lau's replacement may report to editorial director and Ming Pao veteran Cheung Kin-bor at the beginning of his tenure. Cheung will also act as chief editor in the interim.

Although reporters at Ming Pao still pursue hard-hitting investigative reports, the paper has increasingly been seen as adopting a pro-government bent, particularly in its editorials. Its support for Leung Chun-ying in the 2012 election for chief executive of Hong Kong alienated some longtime readers and staff, as Leung is close to Beijing and has been accused of being an underground Communist Party member.

"Ming Pao is actually quite a mild newspaper, but in today's Hong Kong, even a paper like Ming Pao is considered intolerable and needs to be controlled, " said Lee Wei-ling, the radio host who spread the news of the management shake-up. "Even someone like Kevin Lau, who many people believe to be pro-government, cannot be accepted. This tells us there is a big crisis."

Lee is skeptical of the timing of the change at Ming Pao, which comes as the government is consulting the public on how it will directly elect a chief executive for the first time in 2017. The government in Beijing wants a system to pre-screen candidates and has said that any candidate for the job must be a patriot who does not oppose the central government.

Many Hong Kongers reject this position as a violation of the terms under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule. Some are supporting the Occupy Central movement, which advocates thronging the city's business district in an act of mass civil disobedience as a last resort for winning universal suffrage. Beijing has already warned against committing any acts of civil disobedience, as have pro-establishment figures and media.

Lee's skepticism is driven largely by her own experiences as a journalist, which have turned her into a poster girl for press freedom.

In October 2012, a recording of a discussion about whether to hire her for Hong Kong's first digital radio statio, Digital Broadcasting Corporation, was leaked on the Internet. In it, a man who is allegedly a pro-Beijing businessman tells DBC shareholders that Lee is too provocative and critical of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. "Peng told me the Liaison Office is very offended by her ... they don't want us to hire her," he says.

Peng appears to be a reference to Peng Qinghua, then the director of the central government's Liaison Office -- China's de facto representative office in Hong Kong. The station never hired Lee, and critics say the recording is evidence of political interference by the central Chinese government in Hong Kong's media.

Later, in November 2013, Lee was unexpectedly reassigned from her high-profile job as host of an influential morning radio program on Commercial Radio to a less prominent slot. Many viewed the decision as an attempt to please the government in the run-up to the renewal of Commercial Radio's license, which expires in 2016.

Mak Yin-ting, a former chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and one of the authors of its 2013 annual report on threats to freedom of the press, says protecting the press is a "difficult battle, but not an impossible one."

She describes the changes at Ming Pao as part of a "third wave" of a Chinese central government policy to rein in the Hong Kong media. The first attempt, she said, came in the aftermath of the violent crackdown on China's pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. In Hong Kong, the media, including the pro-Beijing press, condemned the violence and one million people took to the streets.

The government again tried to clamp down on the media after about half a million Hong Kongers protested on July 1, 2003, against government plans to introduce national security legislation to outlaw secession, sedition and treason. After sending emissaries to the city on unofficial fact-finding missions, the government in Beijing concluded that the Hong Kong media had played a role by "fanning the flames and adding fuel to the fire," said Johnny Lau, a political commentator.

In response, the government stepped up efforts to control the media by wooing local media bosses with business opportunities, Mak said. Today, more than half of Hong Kong's media bosses are members of China's parliament and top consultative body.

"China has always controlled the media through controlling the capitalists. But the point is, this time more people allowed themselves to be co-opted," Mak said. "The political reality of the handover [of Hong Kong to Chinese rule] was a big factor. Also China was more economically developed -- it's a huge market."

The third and current wave of reining in Hong Kong media, Mak said, started after an opposition movement derailed the government's plans to introduce compulsory national education classes to promote patriotism in Hong Kong schools. According to Mak's research for her 2013 annual report on press freedom, the central government's leading group on Hong Kong affairs then held a meeting in Beijing that launched the latest moves to control the media.

The effects are felt far and wide. A senior journalist at a local news organization, who did not want to be named for fear it would affect his work, said the organization's owner, a local tycoon who had previously been hands-off, met with senior staff from several editorial sections of the paper many times last year.

The journalist said that the message was always very clear -- any attempt to continue the Occupy Central movement would lead to chaos and severely damage Hong Kong's economy.

"The tone and even the wording was very similar to what officials from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office have said in the past," he said. "It was clear he was just following the line."

Like this journalist, Mak and other observers, Shih Wing-ching, the founder of free newspaper am730, asserts that the government in Beijing is encroaching on press freedom. He recently revealed that a number of big advertising clients -- all of them mainland enterprises -- had simultaneously pulled their advertisements from his newspaper without warning or explanation. He estimates that he has lost around $1.3 million in business.

Shih, who made his fortune running one of Hong Kong's biggest property agencies, established the paper in 2005 to engage young readers in news and Hong Kong's future. It boasts striking artwork and a diverse stable of columnists, including many who are sympathetic to the pro-democratic camp.

In a recent column in am730, Shih vowed to continue providing independent, non-partisan coverage -- telling readers the publication would not become a propaganda tool, but also perhaps reassuring higher powers that the paper would not be taking political sides. It may yet turn out to be a strategy for survival.

Mak, for her part, says that "battles only occur when parties see a need for there to be one."

"Everyone's buying time right now," she said. "Nobody knows how the mainland will change. Some mainland media are even more open and independent than Hong Kong media. We haven't lost yet. We're just protecting what is rightfully ours."