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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Transfer Or Exile?
Fears for press freedom as a Hong Kong broadcast boss moves on
By YULANDA CHUNG Hong Kong

The Hong Kong government insisted it was just a routine transfer of a respected civil servant who had asked for a change of responsibilities. But the abrupt departure of spirited press-freedom advocate Cheung Man-yee from her job as boss of the government's broadcasting station proved to be so uncommon that the administration's spin doctor had to go on CNN international news that night to explain it. By then, though, it was already too late to undo what seemed to some to be yet another classic public-relations blunder by a government that has experienced many.

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Books: Japan's Stellar Poet
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"Hong Kong Reassigns Advocate of Free Speech," said a front-page headline in the International Herald Tribune the next morning, over a story that relayed suspicions that Cheung had been ousted from Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) because of the station's criticism of the Beijing and Hong Kong governments. The local South China Morning Post reported heightened anxieties about the future of a free press in Hong Kong. And the Asian Wall Street Journal told its international business readership that the move was "jangling nerves," coming hard on the heels of a recommendation by a government-appointed commission that a body be set up to monitor the press and penalize with fines those publications deemed guilty of invasion of privacy.

With Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa in China and Cheung in Europe, Chief Secretary Anson Chan Fang On-sang stepped forward to calm things down. "I think any suggestion that freedom of expression is dead or press freedom is dead is not only a totally unfounded and unfair criticism, but an insult," she said. Later, on her return to Hong Kong, Cheung said she did not fear for RTHK's independence, and insisted she was not being moved out for political reasons. However, she revealed that since Hong Kong's handover to China in 1997, she had come under pressure to step down and had been offered a number of government positions that would have removed her from control of the station.

For liberals and many in the media, Cheung, 53, is something of an icon. Boisterous, single, with great networking skills and a string of international broadcasting awards, she has over the years defended RTHK from a succession of civil servants (colonial and post-colonial) who could not understand why a service funded by public money should be allowed to criticize government policies. Since the transition, she has come under attack from another flank - from left-wingers in Hong Kong who expected the government station to be shaken up after the return to Chinese sovereignty and be made to operate more like a mainland broadcaster.

Throughout this, Cheung remained unflappable - and uncompromising. Says a newsroom source who asked not to be named: "Not everyone thought Man-yee was the most able administrator in town, but she knew where the line was drawn when it came to independence. No one - in business or government - was allowed to cross it."

Now she is being transferred to Tokyo, where she will be Hong Kong's economic and trade representative. For some, the move is more proof that Cheung's departure was not so much a transfer as a banishment. For the past 13 years, she has been the head of a domestic broadcasting service, with no overseas experience and no training in her new area of responsibility. Why send her to Japan, particularly when she has only two years to go to retirement? But a well-placed government source says Cheung is well suited to the job. "Hong Kong has no real trade problems with Japan. Basically, she will be showing the flag, raising Hong Kong's profile and meeting the right people. She's very good at that. I think she is happy to be getting out."

Three months ago RTHK was rebuked by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen after it gave airtime to a senior Taiwan official in Hong Kong to explain President Lee Teng-hui's argument that relations with China should be conducted on a state-to-state basis. "I think that is what clinched it for [Chief Executive] Tung," says the government source. "He decided that for the sake of relations with Beijing, Cheung had to go." For some, her departure became inevitable when RTHK was not invited to send a representative to Beijing for the Oct. 1 celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic. Other Hong Kong broadcasting stations were there.

Insiders say Cheung agreed to go quietly on two conditions: that the government give an unequivocal public undertaking that the independence of RTHK would not be threatened, and that her longtime deputy, Chu Pui-hing, 51, be appointed to succeed her. Chief Secretary Chan's statement, on Oct. 19, that freedom of expression in Hong Kong was not in danger, is seen as fulfillment of the first condition. As for the second, Chu has so far been named only as acting director of broadcasting. However, government sources say an official promotion will follow.

Two days after the announcement of Cheung's departure, Chu sent a calming memo to senior editors, stressing that the station's independence would be maintained. Terry Nealon, head of English-language radio news, says: "Chu is well respected here. He shares Cheung's values, but he is probably less confrontational. I think nerves will be settled a lot if he is given the job." Says Chu: "Editorial independence is a collective expression, not the work of one person. At RTHK, we have been under the spotlight for a long time, so we're used to operating in this environment."

Some say the first important test of the government's intentions will come with the appointment of a successor to Chu as No. 2, should he be confirmed in the top spot. "If they bring in an outsider from the civil-service ranks - somebody who has been brought on since the handover and is one of the chief executive's chosen men - then we will have reason to worry," says one source.

Others argue the real measure will be whether some of RTHK's hard-nosed Chinese-language TV programs stay on air. Between them, Media Watch, Pentaprism, and Headliner attract a weekly audience of 2.5 million. Their style is direct and, in the case of Headliner, abrasive and satirical. The Chinese government is said to hate it and local critics have described it as "splittist" and "anti-government." Says producer Forever Sze Wing-yuen: "There are worries about whether we can continue."

But the bold attitudes were still on display when Headliner was broadcast for the first time since the news of Cheung's departure. After a tough interview with one of the men often described as being behind the director of broadcasting's downfall, old-guard leftwinger Xu Simin, a program host announced an advertising break. "Headliner is going off air . . . but just for two minutes."

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