Independent journalism, at what price?

Ming Pao staff post paper bills on the wall of the newspaper group's building in Chai Wan Wednesday night , saying they "don't understand" the management's decision to sack a top editor on the ground of cost-cutting.Ming Pao staff post paper bills on the wall of the newspaper group's building in Chai Wan Wednesday night , saying they "don't understand" the management's decision to sack a top editor on the ground of cost-cutting.

By Chris Yeung –

Founded by kung fu novel giant Louis Cha, the Chinese-language Ming Pao is one of the Hong Kong brands that are household names among Chinese in Greater China and overseas. It has consistently ranked top in credibility surveys among journalists and the society at large for being seen as an independent, fearless voice in speaking out when the power and the rich are found to have done something wrong.

Against that shining backdrop, the sacking of the newspaper’s executive chief editor, Keung Kwok-yuen, a highly-respected journalist for his integrity and professionalism, has added more gloom to the newspaper.  To add insult to injury, it fell on the same day the newspaper gave extensive coverage to leaked “Panama Papers” that feature the alleged off-shore business activities of the city’s big names including Li Ka-shing and former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen.

Top Ming Pao editor sacked to cut costs

Chief Editor Chong Tien Siong said Keung was dismissed to cut costs, adding Keung was a highly-paid staff. The company said in a statement the lay-offs also affected business and editorial departments, but did not give details.

Ming Pao staff smelled the rat. Its staff union questioned whether the move was meant to punish “dissidents of editorial decisions” like Keung. The Hong Kong Journalists Association and six industry unions expressed their “utmost regret that a veteran and objective journalist like Keung … was no longer [welcome] at Ming Pao.

Though a low-key senior journalist in the industry, Keung stood tall in the newspaper’s newsroom. He is widely known to have played a key role in keeping the much-earned reputation of the newspaper’s investigative journalism and ensuring stories that might embarrass Beijing, top officials and tycoons have not been censored.

True, the business environment for the city’s newspaper has deteriorated sharply in the past few months. The Chinese-language Sing Tao News Group has earlier announced a pay cut for senior staff.

Ming Pao staff and journalists in other media outlets, however, have a point to question whether the sacking of Keung is just a “lay-off” as some news organisations have defined the case.

However well-paid Keung may be, the sacking of the Number Two editorial person on grounds of financial difficulties caused by a cyclical downturn of the economy is hardly convincing.

Writing on his Facebook, a former executive chief editor of Ming Pao, Simon Fung, said the management has under-estimated the wisdom of the newspaper’s staff and readers by saying Keung was sacked to cut costs. Fung described the series of top-level personnel changes, including the transfer of former chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to to a business development department, as “rude personnel management style”, unmatched with the realities of Hong Kong in the 21st century.

Jittery journalists fear press freedom shrinking

For many fellow journalists, the surprise sacking of Keung has deepened their fears that the space for independent journalism is shrinking while the political and business environment is turning from bad to worse, at least in the near term.

Most, if not all, of them have obsessed with seeking the facts and telling the truth not for the fulfilment of their self-ego, but the belief that that would only be good for them and for their fellow citizens.

It is a pity and disgrace that certain best-paid managers in media outlets, however, have obsessed with fears about financial losses in the short-term at the expense of irreparable damages to their priceless credibility and prestige in the business of independent journalism.

Chris Yeung is founder and editor of the Voice of Hong Kong website. He is a veteran journalist formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.

Photo: Picture taken from Ming Pao Staff Union Facebook



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