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Panama Papers

Censorship at the South China Morning Post: fact, fiction and fallacy

Yonden Lhatoo responds to those who say the Post has been censoring negative news about China’s leaders in the Panama Papers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 7:44pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 April, 2016, 9:49pm

Some of my friends and readers have been asking me to explain a bit of internet chatter this week about the South China Morning Post “censoring” reports on the “Panama Papers”, a treasure trove of leaked documents that are causing a global sensation by exposing how the world’s rich and powerful have been hiding their wealth in tax havens.

I usually ignore the fringe narrative, much of it perpetuated by butthurt ex-Post employees with axes to grind, about this newspaper avoiding stories that show China in a bad light. I could never understand the pathological compulsion some people feel to publicise and post their opinions online without any knowledge, understanding or context about an issue. The bizarre sense of urgency to put ignorance permanently on public display is beyond me.

Let me put it into perspective.

The 11.5 million confidential files from a secretive Panamanian tax firm were obtained by a German newspaper and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which then studied the information and compiled it into a report that was picked up by everyone.

The story broke on Monday, and everyone was hugely excited, in particular by the latest “revelations” about Chinese officials and their secret, offshore shell companies. The problem was all the information on the China link being reported by media outlets was recycled from a much earlier leak that the Post had covered extensively in 2014. We had a team working with the ICIJ back then and reported more details than this new, much bigger leak threw up.

A simple Google/Yahoo/Whatever search on the internet will prove it. But having said that, new information has emerged over the past few days exposing people who were not named in the previous leaks, which the Post has been reporting on a daily basis. It’s only now that the significance of the Hong Kong connection, for instance, is becoming clear, and we are reporting that along with everyone else.

Which is why I’m amused by the “SCMP is finished” hysterics out there. I was shown a video some guy had put on his Facebook page flipping through the Post and pantomiming a search for the “missing” story. The front page he was displaying, by the way, was splashed with an exclusive update on the highest-ranking Chinese general to be done in for corruption – a story that we broke and still own.

Another sent us a formal complaint: “I find it quite stunning when the world’s leading newspapers are reporting on the Panama Papers and the Post decides to lead with the free app ... How on earth can you call yourselves a credible source on China when you refuse to report on these links?” Again, the rush to put ignorance permanently on the record.

Allow me to also remind everyone that venerated media outlets such as The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg either took their time reporting the story or did not initially make it front-page news. You can decide for yourself whether they were censoring the news or reacting accordingly as the bigger picture became clearer.

After running an AFP report on the first day itself, SCMP.com now has 39 stories in the dedicated Panama Papers section of the website.

A recent column I wrote about the Mong Kok riot, in the context of whether the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong would step in, coincided with an article on the same topic published on the same day by executive councillor Bernard Chan. According to the experts at large on Post editorial agenda, it was a deliberate double-pronged strategy, never mind that I’ve never met or communicated with the man in my life, let alone sat down with him to write double-barrelled “propaganda” articles. Truth be told, I decided my topic that week with a coin toss between Canto-pop and the riot.

When one of our columnists, Alex Lo, went on leave for a few days recently and I was filling in, the experts online declared that he had been suddenly removed for his outspokenness and I’d been parachuted in as a troubleshooter. He was actually moving house.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post