Pro-Beijing newspaper accused of running illegal election ad for candidate Chan Hoi-yan on morning of by-election
- Ta Kung Pao featured front-page coverage urging voters to choose pro-establishment candidate, which could be against the law
- Political analysts say paper crossed the line by publishing notice that was not clearly marked as an advertisement
Authorities have been urged to take action against a free newspaper over its front page coverage of the Legislative Council by-election on Sunday, as academics raised concerns that it was tantamount to an advertisement for the key pro-government camp’s candidate.
The news report in question was published by the free pro-Beijing daily Ta Kung Pao on Sunday, when five candidate vied for one of the six Legislative Council seats vacated by pro-democracy lawmakers, who were disqualified for not taking their oaths properly.
The full-page coverage featured the pro-establishment camp’s candidate Chan Hoi-yan’s campaign under the headline: “Prosperity relies on your vote” with a graphic listing out Chan’s manifesto and a tick next to each bullet point, and a big number 5, referring to Chan’s candidate number.
Chan won the Kowloon West constituency seat with 106,457 votes, 13,410 more than veteran pro-democracy unionist Lee Cheuk-yan.
The Electoral Affairs Commission Chairman received a total of 308 complaints on election day, with 128 centred on election advertisements.
Without referring to any specific complaints, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday said the electoral authorities would do their job in handling complaints, as the government wanted a “fair, impartial and honest” election.
Chan’s campaign team said they had never placed advertisements in the paper and knew nothing about the reports. The public can file complaints to the relevant commissions, it said.
On Tuesday Lee said his team would meet on Wednesday to discuss whether to press for action from the electoral authorities.
“I personally think we should report to the ICAC [Independent Commission Against Corruption],” he said, adding that several other free pro-Beijing tabloids published similar reports before election day.
“We would take those reports out and ask if they were actually election advertisements, which would have to be counted as campaign expenses and subject to the declaration.”
Principal lecturer at the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty, Eric Cheung Tat-ming urged authorities to take action.
“That blatantly crossed the line. The average person would read it as an election advertisement once the paper’s logo was covered,” he said on Tuesday.
Cheung noted that some media in Hong Kong have known political inclinations, but he said outlets such as Apple Daily, had not gone as far as Ta Kung Pao did on Sunday.
“If authorities fail to act this time, the fairness of elections as one of the city’s core values would be undermined,” Cheung said.
Apple Daily on Sunday splashed Lee’s campaign with headlines that read “crucial battle for Lee Cheuk-yan” and “vote today”. The story was written with bylines and centred on Lee’s last press conference appealing for support and an analysis that cited a political scientist.
Francis Lee Lap-fung, director of the school of journalism and communication at Chinese University, also said Ta Kung Pao’s Sunday front page looked like a campaign poster of Chan’s.
“There’s a large photo of the candidate, some ticks and her manifesto,” Lee said. “The look is the same as a promotional poster.”
In agreement with Cheung, Lee also believed other media had not gone as far as Ta Kung Pao, and worried that it might lead to an unfair playing field for the pan-democrats.
In response, the Electoral Affairs Commission said expenses incurred by any election promotional materials will be regarded as election expenses incurred by or on behalf of the candidates.
It added that, if the publisher was neither a candidate nor a candidate’s election expense agent, it may have engaged in illegal conduct under the laws.
Under the Elections (Corrupt and Illegal Conduct) Ordinance, election advertisements are defined as including “any messages published publicly for the purpose of promoting or prejudicing” the
election of a candidate and the publisher must declare such materials as advertisements.
As of Tuesday night, Ta Kung Pao had not responded to the Post’s queries.
Additional reporting by Sum Lok-kei