House News' closure shows Beijing's desire for control of Hong Kong media

Albert Cheng believes Tony Tsoi was targeted by the Chinese authorities as part of a broader campaign to stifle support for Occupy Central protests

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 2014, 5:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2014, 1:47am

New media operations offering news and views have mushroomed in Hong Kong over the past couple of years. House News, until recently a thriving news aggregator with a skeleton staff of just over a dozen tucked away in Kwun Tong, eclipsed its competition.

Despite its growing popularity, its founder Tony Tsoi Tung-ho made an abrupt decision to shut down the news portal late last month.

The project was launched at the height of the massive demonstrations against the government's plan to introduce "national education" into the school curriculum. Many parents and students were worried that this was brainwashing in disguise.

House News was modelled after the Huffington Post in the United States. Its emphasis on a diversity of views and local values hit the right note. Tsoi amassed scores of the best bloggers in the city to write for it free of charge, and it attracted 300,000 individual viewers a day within two years, surpassing the readerships of most daily newspapers in town.

It positioned itself as a curator, rather than a reporter, of news. House News never made any claim to objectivity. It was good at graphics and took pleasure in deriding Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, as well as his team in Hong Kong and his masters in Beijing. House News was particularly appealing to the young and educated.

Many questions about the circumstances of its closure remain unanswered. Even its bloggers and staff members have been kept in the dark. Tsoi opted not to respond to media enquiries. Instead, he chose to communicate the surprising news in a written announcement. It appears that he simply wanted to slip out of the limelight as quietly as possible.

On the financial side, he said House News had not seen any boycott by pro-establishment advertisers. "There were practically no ads for us to start with," he wrote in a letter posted on the home page of the House News website. "From a business point of view, I really can't see the dawn for House News. Not only have the core values of Hong Kong been twisted, the market is distorted as well," he observed.

The House News team used to provide editorial services to manage a page of the business section of Apple Daily five days a week. The service fee was the main source of income to sustain Tsoi's new media venture. Apple Daily, however, has recently embarked on an austerity drive. The contract for Tsoi had dwindled to just one day a week.

Tsoi was said to have contributed about HK$600,000 a month out of his own pocket to keep House News going.

However, if the problem was just about funding, House News would probably have survived. Tsoi boasted to friends not long ago that the Asian Wall Street Journal was poised to enter into an agreement with House News. In any case, he could have considered inviting other like-minded investors. As far as I know, there were interested parties.

Tsoi used to run Commercial Radio and is no stranger to business financing. He could have approached potential buyers before going under. Money, therefore, was not a key factor for the website's folding.

The real cause of death is obviously political. "As a businessman who frequently travels to and from the mainland, I have to admit that I felt very scared every time I crossed the border," said Tsoi, who was among the first 10 professionals to pledge to join the Occupy Central protest.

He has apparently been targeted by the Chinese authorities as they gear up their actions to stifle support for Occupy. He did not elaborate on what exactly happened to him at and beyond the border checkpoints.

The pressure was not just on him. He said his family felt it too. "As the atmosphere gets more tense, the pressure around me becomes more disturbing," he said.

Netizens have branded him as the latest victim of a spreading "white terror".

"I am terrified, I misjudged [the situation], and I feel guilty," concluded Tsoi. It is only natural to be afraid when the entire government machine is grinding against you.

He does not have to blame himself for failing his supporters. He has indeed contributed more than his fair share for democracy and freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

However, anyone who wants to be part of the pro-democracy movement should not overlook his confession that he misjudged the political environment.

It is obvious that the Chinese Communist Party is now resolved to putting the Hong Kong media completely under its control. The mainstream news organisations have already fallen into line. The only conspicuous exception is Jimmy Lai Chee-ying's Next Media. Its flagship publication, Apply Daily, has become the last man standing in this uphill battle.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.