Raids leave outspoken Macau broadcaster on edge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 March, 2010, 12:00am

The second-biggest TV broadcaster in Macau, known for its critical news coverage, has been repeatedly raided by government officers searching for illegal workers.

The raids on Macau Asia Satellite Television, which found no illegal workers, have stoked fears that Macau's already limited press freedom is being threatened.

Political commentator and columnist Anthony Wong Dong said the raids were clearly targeting the outspoken broadcaster as no other media organisation in Macau had been searched for illegal workers in the last 10 years.

'Journalists from the TV station have reported on many incidents of social injustice, including those related to labour issues,' Wong said. 'The government hasn't taken kindly to the broadcaster since its launch.'

But the government said the raids were random and had nothing to do with the broadcaster's coverage.

A spokeswoman for the Labour Affairs Bureau, which is responsible for crackdowns on illegal workers, confirmed that no other Macau media organisation had been searched in the last 10 years.

In the most recent incident, seven labour officers and six police officers raided the broadcaster's Macau Peninsula station on the afternoon of March 18. In a three-hour offensive, the officers questioned 23 journalists in a room but found no illegal workers.

Jackie Xie Qian, news editor for the broadcaster, said the raid had disrupted his newsroom and hurt the morale of journalists working there.

'It took place during our busiest hours before a 6.30pm news broadcast,' Xie said. 'A lot of our journalists had to stop work to be questioned.'

He said they thought their critical coverage had offended the government and other powerful figures in China's gaming enclave.

In February, eight journalists from the broadcaster were summoned before the labour bureau for questioning, and in February last year, labour officers raided the broadcaster's satellite transmission station in Coloane.

In March 2006, police officers raided the Macau Peninsula office for illegal workers. According to the bureau, suspected illegal workers were found in that raid and the case was referred to a court. But the court found no evidence of illegal employment.

The bureau says officers draw lots to decide where to look for illegal workers based on complaints by residents of illegal employment across the island. It says it has never interfered with press freedom in its search for such workers.

Macau's mainstream media is known for its reliance on government funding and a reluctance to criticise the authorities.

The government-owned and funded Teledifusao de Macau (TDM) is believed to have the most viewers among Macau broadcasters.

Launched in 2004, Macau Asia Satellite has set itself apart from Macau's other mainstream media by hiring hard-hitting Taiwan-trained journalists to enhance its news coverage and analysis.

There is no official data showing how many people watch Macau TV stations, but Wong said Macau Asia Satellite probably had the second-biggest share of viewers after TDM.

In November, one of the broadcaster's news shows criticised the government for allowing an old hotel building in a crowded residential area to be redeveloped into a slot-machine arcade. The plan, approved by Macau's Secretary of Economics and Finance Francis Tam Pak-yuen, whose ministry oversees the Labour Affairs Bureau, contradicted a government promise to move slot machines out of densely populated areas.

On Tuesday, Tam said the raids on the broadcaster were random and without prejudice. The government would not interfere with press freedom, he said.

Tam made the comments during a session of the Macau legislature to explain economic policies. Legislator Jose Coutinho had expressed concern about press freedom being threatened and asked Tam about the raids.

Coverage of key issues has helped Macau Asia Satellite maintain its following and popularity. The broadcaster recently gave prominent coverage to a chaotic job fair which showed a large number of angry people frustrated at being out of work.

Extensive coverage has also been given to an alleged medical blunder by a government-run hospital. Delays in treatment in 2004 have left a 15-year-old girl in a coma, the broadcaster said in a documentary about the father's fight to get health authorities to admit their role.

The problem of illegal workers has been a big source of public discontent in Macau, with angry local workers repeatedly taking to the streets in the past few years.

It is believed that thousands of illegal workers, mostly from the mainland, are in Macau to benefit from its casino boom.

In August 2007, illegal workers were arrested in a luxury flat owned by Shuen Ka-hung, head of the Labour Affairs Bureau, where they were doing renovation work.