• Thu
  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 12:04pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 3:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 3:55am

Hong Kong must remain guiding light for media amid the regional darkness

Philip Bowring says 10 years after the closure of a fearless HK publication, it's vital to maintain our freedoms and remain a hub for regional news, given the controls exerted elsewhere


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

This weekend about 100 journalists, myself included, from four continents have gathered in Hong Kong to celebrate the life of a once-renowned institution - the Far Eastern Economic Review weekly magazine - that thrived in large part because of the freedoms Hong Kong provided. Those freedoms remain and need to be used to keep Hong Kong as the regional news hub.

It is a decade since the magazine was killed off by the US publisher Dow Jones. The reasons for its death, aged 58, are arguable but surely included the fact that it was in competition for revenue with The Wall Street Journal Asia, the Dow Jones flagship. New York managers' interests prevailed over local ones, in the process leaving a huge hole in Asian regional coverage that has never been filled.

At its peak in the late 1980s, the Review was selling 85,000 copies a week, 80 per cent of them outside Hong Kong and was eagerly awaited, sometimes in trepidation, by political leaders, business figures, academics and a large audience of English-reading professionals around Asia and beyond. It was accustomed to being banned and sued (most notably in Singapore), its correspondents harassed and occasionally jailed. But it wore these wounds with pride.

Its honesty and independence were established through its coverage of the Vietnam war, the Malaysian race riots on 1969, and the disturbances in Hong Kong both in 1966 - the Star Ferry riots - and during the Cultural Revolution.

It quickly became viewed with hostility by governments around the region, not least in Hong Kong. But here, the press remained relatively free while the situation elsewhere in the region was dire; Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia all in the grip of authoritarian regimes, the media being gradually squeezed to death in Singapore, and muzzled in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Hong Kong's separate and peculiar existence not only helped the Review succeed, it also inspired other Hong Kong-based regional publications, including Asia Magazine, The Asian and Asiaweek. In different ways, they brought improved standards of journalism, provided independent media in countries where the local ones were controlled, and encouraged the development of a cadre of Asian journalists who would flourish in their own countries when conditions allowed.

These publications sustained the links between Hong Kong and the English-reading overseas Chinese populations in Southeast Asia, whose leading business figures always looked to Hong Kong as the ultimate refuge for money, freedom of speech and, for many from Indonesia and Burma, refuge for themselves.

None of the above publications still exist. Publishing economics have changed. The concentration of media power everywhere has driven out niche publications. Freer media in some countries has reduced the need for buying it from abroad. Meanwhile, tight restrictions remain on media in major English-reading markets such as Singapore and Malaysia. But the importance of Hong Kong as a unique regional hub remains.

Whether that advantage is fully exploited is debatable at a time when Bloomberg openly admits to tailoring news coverage to suit its commercial interests by not offending powerful people. Bloomberg is, of course, not unique among Western media, which loudly proclaim they are fearless and free but, like the sanctimonious, hypocritical New York Times, have long proved Lee Kwan Yew right when he proclaimed in the 1980s that he would hit foreign media "in their pockets" if they "interfered" in Singapore politics and they would mostly fall in line.

The business foundations of media are shifting, but Hong Kong remains the place in Asia with the best prospect of nurturing a media that is free while remaining internationalist and multi-ethnic in a region where nationalism and ethnic tensions are rising and where anti-imperialism can have a very different focus from that in 1946.

The Review reunion is also a reminder of the importance of records, whether of government, land ownership or family. In Hong Kong, the 58 years of Asian events recorded in the magazine can be found in the volumes in a few libraries such as that of the University of Hong Kong. But do not bother asking the owners of the copyright, Dow Jones, for the electronic version, which it has somewhere in its archives. It neither knows nor cares about such "ancient history".

If a company that proclaims itself to be a crucial source of information merely concerns itself with a few months of data, it is no surprise that the Hong Kong government continues to resist passing a law to protect its archives from the destruction that officials seem to see as the simplest way of covering up their misdeeds.

This is not just a shocking neglect of Hong Kong's own needs, condemned by its own Ombudsman and Director of Audit; it is a slap in the face of its legacy from both China and Britain, societies whose essential stability for more than 1,000 years was built on the rock of records of what went before.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying should ask himself how his former real estate clients would feel if records in the Land Registry were shredded, exposing all owners to Maoist jackals and hyenas.

Philip Bowring is a former Far Eastern Economic Review editor


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This article is now closed to comments

The rise and fall of any single publication is of less importance. But the underlying principle of freedom of information is vital, and Mr. Bowring is spot-on in trying to cast light upon it.
Information is power. That's why the CCP insists on controlling it and sabotaging it on the mainland. It is a lesson from which HKers should learn, and extend every effort to avoid in their own backyard.
Politicians in power in general don't like their dirty laundry to be aired. The HK ones presumably are no different. But it seems they've learned too astutely from their CCP masters, and it's a problem HKers should want to nip in the bud.
PB brings us two reports today: history of news reporting in Asia with his evaluation of the current state that ‘but Hong Kong remains the place in Asia with the best prospect of nurturing a media that is free and …..’ and later the disjoint in Hong Kong history with the destruction of city records. I only agree with the latter.
Hong Kong’s SCMP which is the major English newspaper with hundreds of year’s history, its standard in reporting especially in caption writing has suspiciously degraded to a shameless peddling for readership. Just yesterday and before that I caught SCMP again misrepresenting the story it covered with a catchy by irrelevant caption. I commented the followings:

The media as a torch bearer flashing light on and reflecting to the world pulse of a given society anywhere and everywhere should also remain FREE, FAIR, UNBIASED AND HIGHLY RESPONSIBLE giving due consideration to political, economic and social structures prevailing in any given community! By the way, an eloquent description of the history of a highly respected regional publication by an eminent journalist!
I was a devoted reader of the Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1980s and 90s - it would be so valuable to have it still considering how the region has become even more important since, The author is quite right to continue to sound the alarm for press freedom in Hong Kong.
Ironic how HK cannot see the obvious ways it can be or already is a "hub" city but would rather pursue fantasy visions such as being a "tech hub" or "wine trading hub".
Either way, I don't give much hope for the future of independent media in greater China as more and more mainland interests burrow their way into media and begin self policing or owners kow tow to the CCP to curry favors.
The losers are the vast population that will forever be hoodwinked.
It is very thought-provoking to juxtapose the suppression of media freedom in Singapore (and Korea, and Taiwan), mentioned in Bowring's article, and its economic success in the past few decades, all achieved under "authoritarian" rule. Very interesting indeed! At the same time, 800 million voters are partaking in the democratic election in India. Good luck India!
---If even New York Times is called "sanctimonious, hypocritical", then where can we indeed find unbiased reporting? Perhaps there has never been such a thing, that no stance is unambiguously neutral.
BTW, I was a membership reader of SCMP Sunday Edition for school children in the 60s. Go to SCMP’s archive my name should be there.
How Hong Kong can accommodate growing number of mainland visitors (Wednesday):
Posting 1:
The caption is misleading. The author never suggested that. Rather the opposite is true which I concur. Limiting the number of mainland visitors to regain some social order in Hong Kong is just simple common sense.
Posting 2:
The caption is totally divorced from the text. I posted the following two days after when such deception is being practiced again:
The entire editorial hasn't proposed one preventive measure to ease homelessness. The caption is another deceptive billing that SCMP has addicted in using. It must has provened to SCMP managment that deception gets more clicks to show to its advertisers. The manager trumps the editor. Reality is only true to SCMP but me.
It is no different from fabricating number of readership which got caught of Singtao neswpaper some years ago.'
Prevention is best cure for city's hidden crisis on homelessness (SCMP Editorial / Saturday):
The entire editorial hasn't proposed one preventive measure to ease homelessness. The caption is another deceptive billing that SCMP has addicted in using. It must has provened to SCMP managment that deception gets more clicks to show to its advertisers. The manager trumps the editor. Reality is only true to SCMP but me.
It is no different from fabricating number of readership which got caught of Singtao neswpaper some years ago.'
Thanks John, why not re-post a few of your other irrelevant comments on other stories for us to read?




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