South China's Morning 'Censor'?
It is the story you are not likely to see in the pages of Hong Kong’s "Newspaper of Record", the South China Morning Post (SCMP), but it is appearing just about everywhere else.
From the mainstream press to social media in this bustling metropolis, people are discussing the suspected self-censorship by the venerable 109-year old SCMP.
It played out like this.
A senior sub-editor, Alex Price, questioned a decision by the paper's new editor, Wang Xiangwei, to apparently downplay the suspicious death of Tiananmen Square activist Li Wangyang.
A terse email exchange followed, which was made public and has since been doing the rounds.
The edited highlights:
Price: A lot of people are wondering why we nibbed the Li Wangyang story last night…
Wang: I made that decision.
Price: Any chance you say why? … It looks an awful lot like self-censorship.
Wang: I don’t have to explain to you anything … If you don’t like it, you know what you can do.
Is there censorship here, self-imposed or otherwise?
It is the question most-often asked of any Hong Konger, straight after: "What changes have there been since the 1997 Handover?"
Suspicions that Beijing dabbles behind the scenes in curbing press freedom in the only Chinese city which has it, means the mere whiff of censorship makes the news here.
To the SCMP’s credit, after reducing the news to its middle pages for a day, it then went big on the story with a special focus section and hard-hitting columns, including by the editor himself.
But Wang’s credentials, as the paper’s first Mainland-born editor, have been called into question, with other media taking a swipe at his position as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee; the inference being that he is more likely to bend to China’s wishes to portray a more positive image of Mainland affairs.
Given his background, combined with Hong Kong’s obsession for censorship scandals, there’s a whiff of a witch-hunt about all of this.
But Wang, more than anyone, should have been most aware of the need to get coverage of such a sensitive Mainland story absolutely right.
Over the years, the SCMP has had its ups and downs, but it is a credit to its journalism that the paper stands as one of the best regarded sources of information in this part of the world, particularly in unraveling the often opaque business of what is really happening in China.
You have to travel a long way from the South China coast before you come across other papers which can claim the same editorial independence.
As Hong Kong prepares to mark the 15th anniversary since its handover to China, its citizens are still waiting for full democracy.
Freedom of speech, and the freedom of its media to report it, must suffice for now.
But it is a healthy sign at least that such a storm of media coverage, online debate, blogging and opining (this piece included) can be whipped up by just any incident that seemingly erodes that basic right.