Hong Kong's media bosses acting more like lapdogs than watchdogs

Albert Cheng says the unwillingness of executives to challenge leaders' views on political reform merely reinforces self-censorship fears

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 5:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 May, 2014, 1:37am

Hong Kong reporters have never been known to shy away from confronting those in power. But when their bosses encountered a top Communist official last week, the situation was merely an exercise in timidity.

The Chinese authorities invited three media bodies to assemble a delegation to visit Beijing. The Hong Kong Federation of Journalists, the Hong Kong News Executives' Association, and the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong were dutifully represented. The more militant Hong Kong Journalists Association, which represents beat reporters, was excluded.

More than 20 senior editors and executives from both print and electronic media outlets joined the trip. Conspicuously absent was anyone from Apple Daily and the Oriental Daily News. Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Wang Guangya , director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, received the group.

The last time a similar delegation was given such special treatment was in 2003, when Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun reminded news representatives from the city of their "social responsibilities" in the wake of the massive protest march against Tung Chee-hwa, who was chief executive at the time. The latest visit again appears to have been a reminder to the local media of what is expected of them in times of hyper political sensitivity.

The visit came after a delegation from the Legislative Council visited Shanghai. It was arranged within weeks of the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square military crackdown on June 4, and close to the end of the first round of public consultation on political reform. It also came as student organisers of the Occupy Central protest suggested they might move it to as early as July 1.

Li told the media executives during a closed-door session that Occupy Central was unlawful and would delay universal suffrage and wreck Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. He called on Hong Kong's media to report on the benefits brought by the mainland's economic development in an "objective, fair, balanced and rational" manner. Wang went a step further to declare that, if necessary, Beijing could provide assistance to quell Occupy Central.

The New York Times described Li's comments as "the bluntest warning yet from a Chinese Communist Party leader about possible protests in Hong Kong's financial district".

There was a brief photo op for the session, after which no cameras or recording devices were allowed. The officials' remarks were faithfully repeated to Hong Kong reporters by Lee Cho-jat, the chairman of the Newspaper Society, and Ronald Chiu Ying-chun, the executive director of Cable TV, who is also chairman of the News Executives' Association.

The remarks were widely interpreted as a call on the Hong Kong media to fall into line in denouncing the growing civil campaign for a genuinely democratic election of the next chief executive in 2017.

The news executives neither challenged nor questioned the Beijing leaders' intentions. They also failed miserably to reflect Hong Kong people's concern about possible restrictions on leaders of the democratic camp being nominated as candidates.

Opinion surveys have indicated that more than 60 per cent of people want anyone to have the chance to be an official candidate as long as he or she can secure a certain percentage of support from registered voters. This is in contrast with the conservative position of pro-Beijing elements that only a nominating committee should decide who may be placed on or deleted from the ballot.

Before they were called to Beijing, none of the media associations or delegates reportedly discussed what issues to raise with the Chinese leaders. A chance to greet them was apparently good enough.

Chinese officials and their protégés in Hong Kong have been whistling the same tune for a while now. In fact, Chinese officials do not seem to mind being accused of meddling in domestic Hong Kong affairs any more; they just want to get their warnings across.

The real eye-opener has been the subservience on the part of our so-called watchdogs. In facing Beijing's powerful, they simply became oblivious to their roles in the fourth estate. Not a yap, not a yelp.

The four major local TV stations each set aside between four and six minutes to carry Beijing's message in their news bulletins. In a violation of the objectivity requirement enshrined in the code of practices for broadcasters, the stations did not bother to interview the Occupy Central campaigners for a reaction.

The poor performance of the media bosses before the altar of power has reinforced frontline reporters' worries about self-censorship. Our news hounds aspire to be the voice of the masses, but those holding their reins seem quite content to be just a mouthpiece.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk