The past week has seen two very different media events in Hong Kong. The reappearance of beleaguered actor-singer Edison Chen Koon-hei on Thursday roughly coincided with the first press conference held by journalist Ching Cheong since his conditional release from a Guangzhou jail on spying charges.
Hundreds of members of the local and foreign press corps descended on Chen's conference, which had to be held at the Hong Kong International Trade and Exhibition Centre in Kowloon Bay to accommodate them. Ching held court at the more august, but smaller, Foreign Correspondents' Club in Central, where more than 100 fellow journalists showed up. And while Chen did his mea culpa, Ching insisted on his innocence.
It's fair to say the sex photos scandal - which has rocked the Asian entertainment industry to the core and captivated the entire community for weeks - has not been a shining moment in the annals of Hong Kong journalism. The media has every right to report on the scandal and the many issues it raises. But some racy newspapers and magazines have exploited the affair for all its worth. Judging from their phenomenal sales, they are laughing all the way to the bank. This is not something to be proud of. The local media has gone out of its way to satisfy the public's appetite for the salacious.
Ching's case, however, puts local journalism in a different light. Few people doubt his innocence. And the papers that have splashed those sex photos on their front pages for days are among those that have kept Ching and his plight in the public eye since his first detention three years ago. Here, the press has served the public interest well. Credits for his early release must first go to his intelligent and devoted wife, Mary Lau. If not for her dogged determination and tireless efforts, the government and the local media might have lost interest in her husband's case. However, it is doubtful Ching would have been released without the constant media exposure, which put pressure on the government and various parties with close ties to mainland officialdom to work on his behalf.
In the past month, we have seen the local media at its worst and at its best. There are elements in the scandal that may be peculiar to Hong Kong, but the commercial dictates of the media are the same everywhere. An uncensored press is necessary in any free society, but it will always have two faces. It is a light on society - but also its dark shadow.