Staff intimidation and warning notes heralded storm at House News: writer

Warning notes and charged atmosphere heralded closure of news blog, says contributor

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 4:54am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

Staff at the defunct House News website sensed a crackdown brewing a fortnight before the Hong Kong news blog was abruptly shut down by one of its founders, Tony Tsoi Tong-hoo, according to a contributor.

Evan Fowler, who is also a friend of Tsoi's, says the turning point came when he was told to go to a restaurant instead of the Kwun Tong office for a meeting and was handed a note bearing the word "storm". From then on conversations with staff seemed guarded. There was also talk of an investigation on the mainland.

The claims are made by Fowler in an article in today's South China Morning Post. He writes: "There is too much about the sudden closure of House News that does not add up to … it being merely a business decision."

In a separate interview with the Post, Fowler says: "The [House News staff] seemed to be facing intimidation and they could not talk freely.

"Things were written on paper and there were words like 'storm', 'not secure' and 'crackdown'," said Fowler.

He said that whatever pressure was being exerted on the website, it was beyond anything Tsoi had expected or been able to handle.

Fowler's claims could not be independently confirmed.

Other former House News writers taking part in a rally at the government headquarters in Tamar, Admiralty yesterday, said they had not sensed anything unusual.

Tommy Cheung Sau-yin, a former spokesman for student pro-democracy group Scholarism, said: "The decision came suddenly. I had been in touch with them the previous day on one of my articles."

Tsoi announced on July 26 - days before House News was to mark its second anniversary - that he was closing down the site, partly because of what he described as a "white terror" campaign.

Modelled on The Huffington Post, House News was founded in July 2012 by Tsoi, former adviser to the Central Policy Unit Lau Sai-leung, writer and cultural critic Leung Man-tao and columnist Gregory Sung Hon-sang. Tsoi claimed there were as many as 300,000 visitors to the site every day.

Neither Tsoi nor his partners could be reached for comment yesterday.

In an interview published on July 1 with Taiwan news weekly The Journalist, Tsoi said he had not encountered any "political trouble" after joining the Occupy Central campaign a year ago.

After the closure, Leung told the South China Morning Post that Tsoi had been paying almost HK$600,000 a month to keep the website running but they could still never balance the books. Leung also claimed that many big companies were reluctant to place advertisements on the website because of its critical stance towards the Hong Kong and Beijing governments.

The closure of the House News website comes amid mounting concern over press freedom in the city.

This year, Hong Kong was ranked 61 in the global press freedom index compiled by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. It had been ranked 58th last year and 54th in 2012.