The South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong’s paper of record, has axed four of its star columnists—three of whom were prominent critics of the Hong Kong government—leaving many observers feeling nervous about the paper’s current and future direction.
The four respected columnists are Philip Bowring, Steve Vines, Kevin Rafferty and Frank Ching. Asia Sentinel reports that their exact employment status is unclear at this point, with at least one being told that he might be allowed to write a column once a month. Meanwhile, EJ Insight reports that the three British journalists (Bowring, Vines and Rafferty) received a formal termination notice last week, cancelling their regular op-ed columns starting in June.
EJ Insight adds that one of the columnists was told that the termination was “not because of what they wrote.”
The motives for the dismissals are unknown, but under debate. Optimistically, one might argue that the sudden cuts were made to make room on the op-ed pages for new voices. But the ghostly fashion in which the firings were carried out has led some analysts to suspect that they came instead as the result of an edict from Beijing’s Liaison Office.
The pending departure also comes at a time where China has been tightening its grip on both domestic press and international reporting and press freedom in Hong Kong is hitting a new low (ranked 18th freest in 2002, now 83rd). Observers worry that this is yet another in a curious series of events that seems to be turning Hong Kong’s most prestigious paper into a China Daily clone. According to Asia Sentinel, SCMP has fired a number of “inconvenient” writers in recent years under “lame justifications,” such as the dismissal of prize-winning journalist Paul Mooney in July of 2012.
Also back in 2012, SCMP’s new editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei (chosen in consultation with the Liaison Office) made international news himself when an exchange between him and a sub-editor over Wang’s decision to reduce a major breaking story on the suspicious death of Tiananmen dissident Li Wangyang to a mere brief was leaked to the media.
Maybe the dismissed journalists will be able to find work elsewhere starting next month?
by Alex Linder
[Image via The prosaic traveller]