Cheng Yizhong, CEO of iSunTV: powered by a passion for the truth

Cheng Yizhong, CEO of iSunTV, says jail only served to strenghen his journalistic ideals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 3:13am

Seeing Cheng Yizhong's face brighten as he talks passionately about his news media ideals, it is hard to imagine that he was once locked up for publishing an outspoken newspaper.

Despite his ordeal, Cheng, who joined the iSunTV group as chief executive this year, is adamant that editorial independence is the most valuable asset any media outlet can have.

Cheng, the founder and former chief editor of the outspoken Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Daily, was detained for five months in 2004 on trumped-up charges of corruption, after the paper published daring reports exposing government flaws, among them the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic and the violent death in detention of the migrant Sun Zhigang in 2003. Cheng, 47, was only released after the intervention of retired liberal leaders. He now says the harrowing experience only strengthened his belief in editorial independence.

"My ideals in news have become even stronger, I have a stronger sense of mission, I have abandoned any illusion about the authorities," Cheng said. "On the contrary, I've deepened my understanding of the value of being independent as a journalist on the mainland. My awareness of the media's role as the fourth estate has never been clearer."

He laments the lack of serious, high-quality publications in Hong Kong and the mainland's lack of free speech. Against this background, iSun Affairs is only filling a gap, he says.

Cheng said the vicious competition in Hong Kong media was largely due to the overly commercial attitude of investors and operators, who overlooked the fact that a media outlet's best selling point was its credibility.

"They forget that many readers also have a serious, contemplative side," Cheng said.

The Southern Metropolis Daily, even though it was seen by officials as a thorn in their side, was commercially successful precisely because of its lack of compromise, he said.

Cheng, who grew up in rural Anhui , graduated from university in 1989, the year of the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement. "I realised that unchecked power and having unelected people in power are against universal values," he said.

Cheng said he was not placing a lot of hope in the country's new leaders after the national congress next month. He said the party's refusal to embrace democracy and separation of powers was dangerous. Political reform would see the party lose power, he said, but that would be better for the country and party in the long run.

"It's best if you carry out reform yourself, like Taiwan and the former Soviet Union, but the party chose to stand on the opposite side of the people," he said. "It prefers to walk towards a dead end - this won't lead to a path of brightness."

Many people on the mainland moan about living under an authoritarian regime but, Cheng said, everyone had a responsibility for China's situation: "Each of us should awaken and cultivate a sense of citizenship. We shouldn't put our fates in the hands of some emperor or leader. Then there would be no soil for totalitarianism [to thrive in]."