Malaysian editor Chong Tien Siong will join the Chineselanguage daily Ming Pao in a senior position next month despite objections from staff who see the appointment as a threat to editorial independence.
But the former editor of Nanyang Siang Pau will start in the newly created post of principal executive editor rather than as chief editor as previously proposed, the paper's owners announced yesterday.
Editorial director Cheung Kin-bor will continue to act as chief editor, as he has since predecessor Kevin Lau Chun-to was reassigned last month said Tiong Hiew King, executive director of Ming Pao's parent company Media Chinese International, in an internal notice.
Insiders said yesterday's announcement paved the way for Chong to take over from Cheung, who told colleagues yesterday he would retire in October.
Cheung said last night that the arrangement would see Chong serve as his deputy and would give him time and space to build an understanding with staff.
The announcement came a month after management first revealed the plan to replace Lau, who was moved to the company's electronic books division in a sudden shift which sparked public concern over the paper's editorial freedom.
The move was greeted with "deepest regret" by staff, who said a different title for Chong did not ease their worries. "Chong - who will be the top aide to the chief editor - will head editorial when Cheung is not at work," Sin Wan-kei, a member of the concern group formed to oppose the appointment, said.
The concern group said earlier that Chong had no concrete understanding of Hong Kong and had failed to win the trust of the newspaper's staff.
The group and the 55-year-old daily's former employees initiated a petition and a rally last month and several writers, including the Democratic Party's founding chairman Martin Lee Chu-ming, left their columns blank to show their discontent.
Lawmakers passed a motion expressing concern over freedom of the press and calling for the protection of editorial independence in response to the personnel changes at Ming Pao.
But management insisted on appointing Chong after two rounds of talks with the staff concern group.
Chong previously worked at Sin Chew Dai ly newspaper and Yazhou Zhoukan magazine, both owned by Media Chinese International. He is considered pro-establishment, having made a deal with pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po in 2009 to feature its content in Nanyang Siang Pau.
Additional reporting by Danny Mok