Doubts still linger over Allen Lee's departure

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 June, 2004, 12:00am

Freedom-of-speech fears remain despite efforts to clarify chain of events

Despite his efforts to clear the air, former mainland official Cheng Shousan faces a tough task in removing the mountain of suspicion over his alleged attempt to silence talk-show host Allen Lee Peng-fei.

If anything, the version of events given by Mr Cheng yesterday may just confirm, in broad terms, the statements by Mr Lee last week about their telephone conversation on May 18.

It is unlikely to eliminate the public fears and anxiety about the possibility of an orchestrated drive by Beijing to remove dissenting voices from popular radio programmes.

The late-night call by Mr Cheng was the last straw in Mr Lee's decision to quit Commercial Radio's Teacup in a Storm the next day.

In his defence yesterday, Mr Cheng stressed that he had retired and had no official capacity. Claiming that Mr Lee should know who he is, Mr Cheng was desperately keen to convince sceptics that there were no sinister motives behind his phone call.

But judging from the fact Mr Lee had mistaken Cheng as Chen, there is good reason to believe the pair did not know each other well.

It is therefore not surprising that Mr Lee sensed something wrong when he received a call from Mr Cheng, who made a reference to his wife and daughter.

Given the background of harsh words by senior Beijing leaders about his critical stance towards Beijing and the Tung administration since last August, Mr Lee must have interpreted the call from Mr Cheng as a veiled threat to his family - however remote it might be.

Mr Cheng's account yesterday did not appear strong enough to disprove Mr Lee's judgment, nor discredit his trustworthiness.

That said, Mr Cheng - and perhaps the central authorities - have no choice but to come out to clear the air.

Events in the past week show that the Lee saga has dealt a body blow to local and international confidence in freedom of speech and the press in the city.

The fact that the number of people who joined the annual June 4 rally on Sunday was double last year's figure suggests the 'off-air' incident has aggravated public dissatisfaction towards Beijing following its decision to rule out universal suffrage.

With the credibility of both the central and Hong Kong governments in doubt, the attempt by Mr Cheng to dilute the controversy will not help reduce the damage. The damage has been done.

Coming on the heels of last week's government reaffirmation of freedom of speech and the press, the Cheng version is seen as a belated attempt to kill the 'off-air' story.

But given the volatility and cross-currents of the political scene in an election year, it is more likely the suspicion and fears generated by the absence of the controversial voices from talk shows will prevail for some time.