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From Our Correspondent: Invisible Hands at Work
New reasons to worry about Hong Kong press freedom

November 10, 2000
Web posted at 5:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 5:30 a.m. EDT

Back in June, a most astonishing letter appeared in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper. It was from the paper's owner, Kuok Hock Nien. In it, the Malaysian businessman berated China editor Willy Wo-lap Lam for his coverage of a closed-doors meeting in Beijing between Hong Kong's leading businessmen and President Jiang Zemin. Lam reported that the Chinese leader had urged the tycoons to rally around Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, whose popularity was (and still is) very low. Kuok, who attended the meeting, said in his letter that Lam's report was wildly off the mark.

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As you might expect, publication of the letter caused an uproar in Hong Kong media circles and beyond. What was going on? A proprietor writing to his own paper? Opinions were divided about what it meant. By being so transparent, was Kuok trying to show that though he was the owner, he wanted to be treated as just another reader? Or was he very publicly applying pressure on Lam and the editor-in-chief, Robert Keatley? Kuok later insisted he had written in a personal capacity.

Excuse me, but does it really make any difference? When the owner of your paper questions your credibility in public, you get the message: You're not wanted. Or at least you had better watch your step. It would have been difficult for Lam to see it any other way, given that the previous editor of the Post, Jonathan Fenby, has written in a recently published book that Kuok once before tried to have Lam sacked. Fenby resisted that move. The suspicion is that Jiang is not happy with the way Lam probes behind the scenes in Beijing, and has passed on his displeasure to Kuok.

Now that suspicion has been given even more credence. Lam, China editor for the past 10 years, resigned from the paper this week after a reshuffle in which he lost his position to a former journalist with the mainland's state-run China Daily. Keatley says the new arrangement is designed to broaden the Post's coverage of Greater China. Lam was told he could maintain his weekly column, which is recognized by China watchers as a must read. He declined and handed in his notice.

No matter where I go in Hong Kong media circles, the treatment of Willy Lam is the No. 1 topic. The journalist is getting a good deal of sympathetic coverage, with interviews on radio and in local and international newspapers. His case is that an "invisible hand" brought about his downfall. Keatley, who owns up to having handled the matter badly, says he doesn't want to become involved in a battle of words. Some insiders at the Post complain that Lam's stories sometimes contain a suspiciously large number of unnamed sources. Others believe he is being martyred and will in the end have the last laugh. Certainly, as an internationally acknowledged China expert, he will have no problem finding another job. The Post will be weakened by his departure

At stake, yet again, is Hong Kong's precarious freedom of the press. Just a few days before this troubling turn of events, Sing Pao, an independent Chinese-language newspaper, was sold to a company related to tycoon Li Ka-shing, known for his friendship with the Beijing leadership and a man who, incidentally, attended that meeting with Jiang that got Lam into hot water. And then this week a newly launched paper, A Daily, ran an editorial so cravenly pro-China that it wouldn't have looked out of place in Ta Kung Pao, one of Beijing's mouthpieces in Hong Kong.

I was further dismayed by another piece of news. Siu Yurk-yuen, owner of the online Cyber Daily and a veteran media personality, had his editorial office ransacked and his computers smashed earlier this week. The perpetrators left a note of warning: "Be careful what you report!" Add to this a proposed anti-stalking bill that would leave investigative journalists in a gray area of the law — and possibly facing two years in jail — and you have reason to worry where the media is headed.

What's a journalist to do? At the Post, more than 150 put their name to a letter conveying their disquiet about the treatment of Lam. The letter was published in this morning's edition. It said (in part): "While we recognize the right of management to institute changes in the editorial department, we deplore the way in which the reorganization of the China section gave Mr. Lam the impression he was being sidelined, especially in sensitive circumstances just a few months after the unprecedented public criticism of him by former chairman Kuok Hock Nien. We are concerned about the impression this incident has conveyed to the public. We, the journalists, wish to reaffirm our commitment to editorial freedom." Hear, hear.

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