A series of recently leaked email exchanges between the chief editor and sub-editor of a leading English newspaper in Hong Kong, regarding the coverage of mainland Chinese political activist Li Wangyang's staged suicide, has highlighted a deteriorating state of press freedom.
Frustrated over the curtailing of the Li Wangyang story from a 400-word news feature to a 100-word news brief on June 7, 2012, while other local and international news organizations headlined the news, Alex Price, a senior sub-editor for the South China Morning Post (SCMP) wrote an email to Chief Editor Wang Xiangwei, asking for an explanation.
Instead of a professional exchange of opinion, Price found Xiangwei's reply threatening.
The emails were first leaked among SCMP's reporters and editors and made their way to mainstream and citizen media by June 18.
Inmediahk.net [zh, en] translated and reposted the emails, as follows.
On June 7:
Alex Price: Hi Xiangwei … 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: I made that decision.
Alex Price: Any chance you say why? It’s just that to the outside world it looks an awful lot like self-censorship…
Wang: 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.
On June 11:
Accusations of self-censorship
Alex Price: I am concerned by the intimidatory nature of your reply. A very strange editorial decision was made and everyone is wondering why. Many other news organisations splashed with the Li Wangyang story yet we reduced it to a brief. In such circumstances it is quite reasonable to ask the editor why the decision was made. Of course he may decline to say why; there could be any number of reasons, and he may well want to keep them to himself. But if the question was polite and reasonable than [sic] I see no reason why the response should not be equally polite and reasonable. As it stands, I am concerned. I am now worried that anyone who wishes to raise issue with an editorial decision – no matter how much that decision appears to go against good journalism – will be told to shut up or leave. I am further concerned that my justifiable concern on this matter as a journalist may lead to the termination of my employment.
I look forward to a chat where you can put my mind at rest.
Wang: I don't think my answer is anyway intimidatory and I don't know why you have formed your opinion.
Alex Price: Xiangwei; 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 SCMP has subsequently splashed on Li Wangyang, had a focus page devoted to the matter, plus editorials, two columns by yourself and other stories. Yet on the day it counted we reduced the story to a nib.
Journalistic ethics are at stake. The credibility of the South China Morning Post is at stake. Your staff – and readers – deserve an answer.
I look forward to hearing it.
Wang has denied that he downplayed the news in his letter to SCMP staff on June 20, but concerned citizens believe that SCMP is guilty of self-censorship.
The self-censorship problem in Hong Kong's mainstream press has widely been acknowledged and studied [pdf].
On June 21, two political groups, the League of Social Democrats and Democratic Party protested outside SCMP's office, burning their newspapers.
SCMP tainted by red?
The undercurrent of the scandal is related to Wang Xiangwei's close ties with China. Wang's promotion to SCMP's chief editor was widely reported to be tainted with a mysterious “red” color. According to a commentary from Asia Sentinel:
Preceding the naming of its first mainland editor, Wang Xiangwei, the South China Morning Post's 33-year old chief executive officer Kuok Hui-kwong, daughter of tycoon Robert Kuok, was granted a rare one-on-one audience in Beijing with Wang Guangya, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. That has sent a chill through Hong Kong’s media watchers. Apple Daily, the feisty and fiercely independent local Chinese newspaper declared that SCMP has “gone red.”
A graduate of the China Academy of Social Sciences's journalism school and the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Wang has 20 years experience working in the media. He joined SCMP in 1996 as a China business reporter, and was later promoted to China editor in 2000 and deputy editor in 2007.