A Newsroom at the Edge of Autocracy

On the night of August 31, 2019, police officers rushed into a Hong Kong subway station, swinging their batons and chasing suspected anti-government protesters into the narrow carriageways of a parked train as an emergency warning blared overhead.

Like many pivotal moments of the city’s protest movement, the scenes were captured in photographs and live-streams by journalists and bystanders. The most enduring image from the incident shows a small group of people huddled by the subway door. Among them is a man crouching on the floor, holding his hand up toward the police in anguish and fear as he is doused by a thick stream of pepper spray.

Hong Kong’s protest movement was nearly three months old by then, and the police action marked a significant turning point. Reporters across the city tried to make sense of what they were seeing, and to properly explain the enormity of the moment: A subway station, once considered a safe space for commuters, had been breached; and the police, who just months earlier had been seen as trusted members of the community, had assaulted civilians despite no clear evidence of a major security threat.

At the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s largest English-language newspaper, the now-familiar breaking news scramble that would last until early the next morning was under way. How the paper handled that story has since become a source of tension among its journalists, sparking a controversy that is emblematic, many of them told me, of the broader conflicts over media freedoms in the territory as it faces an uncertain future. When I asked the paper’s executive editor about the episode, and more general questions about its protest coverage, he voraciously defended the outlet. Critics, he said, had tried to intimidate and bully SCMP journalists to “condition” the newspaper’s narrative to their own liking. “Should we bend to this kind of pressure?” he asked.

The SCMP is not as well read as the international outlets that it would like to compete with, but because of its unique position—as the main English-language outlet in a strategically important city—its coverage plays an outsize role in shaping international understanding of events not just in Hong Kong but across the border in China, as well.

An early draft of an initial story about the incident, according to a version that was read to me, had an opening that detailed “chaotic and shocking scenes” as officers went after “cowering commuters.” That was not the account that was eventually published, though. The SCMP’s edited story (which was subsequently updated) instead recounted how “elite Hong Kong police” had chased “radical protesters” wearing “masks” into the subway station.

The incident at the paper, recounted by two people with knowledge of the event, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution, exemplified the type of heavy-handed, slanted editing that became common in the SCMP newsroom as the demonstrations carried on. Journalists who spent hours, sometimes in a haze of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets, saw their work drastically altered by editors before running in print and online. The police were typically portrayed as heroes, and the protesters as villains, with little explanation or context of each side’s motives and grievances. “That was frustrating,” one current reporter involved in coverage of the demonstrations told me. (This journalist, like others I spoke to, did not want to be identified, fearing a backlash from the SCMP.) With these stories appearing on the front page of the paper, the reporter said, “they’ve given an impression that SCMP is anti protesters. As journalists, we should never be pro or against protesters.”

(Chien-Chi Chang / Magnum)

Hong Kong has a long legacy of an aggressive and boisterous media, in both the dominant Cantonese language and English. Newspapers are widely read, and they often carry sharp critiques of government and police failures. Those freedoms have been a hallmark of the “one country, two systems” framework that has set the city apart from mainland China, where journalism is heavily censored and far less free.

Yet even before the recent enactment of a far-reaching national-security law in Hong Kong, the city’s media was under strain. Numerous mainstream outlets have been bought by China-backed figures or pro-establishment businesses, shrinking the diversity of voices. In recent years, vigilantes have carried out attacks against senior editors and Beijing has harassed officials from Cantonese newspapers. And since protests began last summer, the government in Hong Kong has also sought to curb journalists’ freedoms. Dissatisfied with honest accounts of official malfeasance, the authorities have sought to stifle some of the city’s most cutting voices. Radio Television Hong Kong, the government-funded broadcaster that operates akin to the BBC, drew an official rebuke when a reporter pressed a World Health Organization adviser over the contentious issue of Taiwan’s inclusion in the global body and after its long-running satirical program took aim at the Hong Kong police. That program, Headliner, has since been suspended. Top newsroom executives have stepped down, and the broadcaster is now under government review. Police continue to harass journalists reporting on protests, which have shrunk dramatically in size and frequency due to a combination of the pandemic, new police tactics, and the national security law.

The new law has worsened the climate further. Reporters and editors in Hong Kong have been left wondering what journalistic activity may now constitute a crime, and they have received few assurances from the city’s leaders. A number of local newspaper columnists have resigned from their positions, fearing that they may fall afoul of the national-security law. This month, The New York Times announced that it would move a portion of its staff to South Korea, a decision that is likely to be followed by other foreign outlets; at least three major Western news organizations, including the Times and The Wall Street Journal, are facing delays in securing new visas or visa renewals for their staff, according to people familiar with the details who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “The purpose of the law is precisely to manufacture a climate of fear among all the governed here,” Kwai-Chueng Lo, the head of the writing program at Hong Kong Baptist University who has researched Hong Kong’s media, told me.

The SCMP sits at the center of many of these tensions. Founded in 1903, when Hong Kong was a British colony, the newspaper has long been the broadsheet of the city’s elites, “the paper to be gripped while riding the bus or to be seen on one’s doorstep in the morning,” the veteran journalist Yuen-ying Chan wrote in an academic article examining Hong Kong’s English-language media. Even beyond China, the SCMP has stood apart, operating free from the onerous press restrictions enforced in other Asian countries such as Singapore. Today, it is arguably the city’s most important title internationally, a position gained from a combination of both its size and its ownership (it is controlled by Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group, one of China’s most successful tech companies).

But last year’s protests tested the paper, as the global media spotlight shifted to Hong Kong, and the SCMP’s reporters found themselves butting up against senior editors who often appeared to be overly deferential to authorities and largely unquestioning of police narratives, even as evidence of misconduct mounted.

Largely due to its association with Hong Kong’s establishment, and that establishment’s growing reliance on business dealings with mainland China, the SCMP has always been a more staid outlet than its Cantonese counterparts. Through the late 1980s and into the mid-2000s, the paper was owned by the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and then the Malaysian billionaire Robert Kuok, and while SCMP veterans often speak of a bygone golden era in which the paper was more critical, there have in fact long been instances that gave rise to questions about its editorial stance and censorship.

The South China Morning Post newsroom. (Paul Yeung / Bloomberg / Getty)

When Alibaba purchased the paper in 2015, the company brought an infusion of much-needed cash. The SCMP hired additional staff, moved into new offices (complete with an on-site pub), and expanded editorial offerings, including the tech-focused Abacus and Goldthread, a video-heavy vertical that reports on Chinese culture. The paper—long a must-read for English-language China watchers, its coverage being far more credible than any mainland outlet—expanded its ambitions, courting a global readership hungry for news from China by dropping its paywall and eventually beefing up its team of China-based reporters to around 50. In 2018, it announced a tie-up with Politico that Gary Liu, the SCMP’s CEO, said in an internal email was a sign of the newspaper’s “growing credibility and authority.” (The SCMP has approached The Atlantic about coproducing events in the U.S. and Hong Kong, according to a spokeswoman for The Atlantic, but the partnership has never materialized. In recent years, the SCMP has also spoken to The Washington Post, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokesperson for the Post did not respond to request for comment.)

Thanks to those factors, as well as drastically increased interest in China, where, of course, the coronavirus pandemic began, the SCMP has seen a sharp rise in readership. Though its daily print circulation is relatively limited, at just over 100,000, it averages more than 50 million monthly active users—a tenfold increase over the past three years—and nearly 200 million pageviews a month. Around a third of that audience is in the United States, Liu said in a podcast interview with Digiday. Yet despite the largesse of its ownership, SCMP remains at the whim of the media market: The newspaper is unprofitable, Liu said during a Recode podcast, and its reliance on advertising has “set off alarm bells.” Staff were recently forced to take unpaid leave for three weeks, and management pay was cut. The SCMP is hoping to open up other revenue streams and will soon reintroduce its paywall.

Over the course of its history, the SCMP has largely fought off English-language challengers, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region. Today, its position atop Hong Kong’s English media scene is largely unrivaled, but its ambitious goals—and its new ownership—have brought greater scrutiny, which the paper does not always seem comfortable with. In particular, there are questions about whether the 117-year-old institution could someday resemble the propaganda outlets trumpeting the party line over the border in China. Liu, who joined the paper in 2017 from the tech company Digg, has consistently pushed back against these concerns. “There is an immediate assumption that because Alibaba is a Chinese company that they are going to meddle in editorial,” he said in the Digiday podcast. “That has never been the case.” Yet Liu has acknowledged how tenuous the paper’s editorial independence is. “If the laws of this city and the judiciary that protects those laws change to the point where there is no longer press freedoms in this city, the South China Morning Post will change,” he told Digiday. (The owners have spoken about how they think coverage should be driven: “A lot of journalists working with these Western media organisations may not agree with the system of governance in China, and that taints their view of coverage,” Joe Tsai, chairman of the SCMP’s board of directors and Alibaba’s executive vice chairman, said shortly after the sale was completed. “We see things differently, we believe things should be presented as they are.”)

Concerns have been raised over the newspaper’s ethics, and its willingness to cooperate with Beijing since the sale. In 2018, the SCMP faced backlash when it conducted a government-arranged interview of Gui Minhai—a Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish citizen who disappeared in 2015 and then reappeared in Chinese custody a year later—in a detention facility while guards loomed over him. Liu has stood behind the interview and article, arguing that the SCMP agreed to the interview after discussions with editors, that there were no strings attached, and that the newspaper made a point of highlighting that Gui was accompanied by security personnel. But Angela Gui, the bookseller’s daughter, told me she was unhappy with the paper’s decision and its continued defense of the interview, which she says Beijing orchestrated to advance its own misleading narrative about her father’s situation. “My father was, after years of illegal detention and torture, subjected to public humiliation by the Chinese government, and the SCMP was complicit by disseminating and legitimizing it as a ‘news story,’” she said.

(Paul Yeung / Bloomberg / Getty)

When it comes to China, the SCMP’s overall coverage remains far from Communist Party mouthpieces such as China Daily or Global Times. Indeed, its website—like that of The Atlantic and other major Western publications, including the Times, the Journal, and others—is blocked on mainland China.

More illustrative has been its coverage of the Hong Kong protests, which proved to be an unexpected test for the paper. Liu told Recode that the newspaper strove to remove emotion from the reporting and editing of stories on the crisis. Those views were welcome on the opinion pages, Liu said, but not in the news section. “That separation for us is sacrament.”

However, nine current and former SCMP employees told me that the lines were often far less clear. Nearly all pointed to Yonden Lhatoo, the SCMP’s chief news editor—and among those responsible for editing the subway story—as an example. Lhatoo, a former TV journalist who was described by current and former colleagues as an abrasive and mercurial presence prone to angry outbursts and frequent shouting, is part of a trio of senior editors seen as contributing to a sometimes caustic newsroom environment. Lhatoo also writes a regular opinion column and news stories as well. His editing of various articles that recapped days of protest grated some journalists, particularly those reporting from the street. The tone was not missed by close readers of the newspaper. “There are choices of language and vocabulary that are in themselves a reflection of bias,” said Louisa Lim, a former Beijing correspondent for NPR who is now a senior lecturer at the Center for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, pointing to the use of terms like riot and rampage that often made it into the final versions of stories recounting protests.

Members of the newsroom were particularly unhappy with a story Lhatoo wrote in October that ran in the news section of the paper, pushing a theory popular among pro-Beijing figures that there was a “silent majority” in Hong Kong that was against the protests but had been scared into silence. They were concerned enough to request a meeting with senior editors after the story’s publication to discuss their concerns over Lhatoo and editing more broadly. Chow Chung Yan, the executive editor, and Zuraidah Ibrahim, the deputy executive editor, met with disgruntled staff, but “there was no attempt to try and reconcile anybody,” one person present at the meeting told me. “It was just, ‘This is the situation, if you don’t like it, there is the door.’” Over the course of the protests and in the months that followed, a number of journalists central to coverage did leave the newspaper, and at least one other editor is expected to depart shortly, according to people familiar with the matter. More recently, Lhatoo, in a May 16 column, urged Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to take a page from Donald Trump’s book and strike back at “malicious journalists” by labeling them “fake news” and a “disgrace.” One former reporter likened it to “asking for an attack on press freedom itself.”

Liu did not respond to a message seeking comment. The paper’s spokesman, Elgen Kua, sent a statement in response to a list of questions this month and suggested a visit to the outlet’s newsroom once Hong Kong is past its latest wave of COVID-19 cases. In a follow-up call, Kua said, despite not having seen the comments themselves, that remarks made by current and former SCMP employees to me were “quite libelous” and that Lhatoo had become the target of a “hate campaign,” something Lhatoo has addressed in his column. Shortly before this story was due to publish, and weeks after multiple interview requests were submitted, the SCMP made Chow available for an interview. Chow told me he believed The Atlantic was biased against the SCMP and in a combative interview, which lasted nearly 40 minutes, challenged the sourcing of this story, the timeline of when The Atlantic contacted the SCMP for comment, and defended the paper’s protest coverage as well as its editorial standards and newsroom culture. “I think actually, from the beginning, you already set your mind about the story angle,” he said. “From your line of questioning I have this worry that I don’t think the SCMP will get fair coverage and I also think some of your story is maybe based on incomplete information.”

“We occupy the middle ground, that means some people are bound to feel like their views are not the dominant views and they feel resentful for that,” he said of the paper’s position. When asked about the Gui story, Chow compared the editorial decision to ones news organizations make when they are invited on government-organized tours of Xinjiang, where China has carried out a brutal crackdown. Regarding the story recapping the subway incident, he said the article was updated numerous times to reflect the chaotic situation on the ground and the end result was a balanced recount of the events of the day.

Concerns over bias in favor of the authorities, particularly the Hong Kong Police Force, exist in the newsroom: In one case, a reporter who has landed numerous scoops for the newspaper on police actions, and has conducted a series of high-profile interviews, was ousted from a group chat with other journalists over concerns that she was possibly leaking information to the force, according to people familiar with the matter. (It was unclear if this ever occurred.) In another case, a story in June marking the anniversary of the protest movement featured a police officer who was injured by demonstrators when he was covered with unknown chemicals. The piece was similar to a report that ran in a recent issue of OffBeat, the police force’s official magazine, featuring the same officer. Another article in the series was an interview with a British police officer serving in Hong Kong that some in the newsroom felt gave him a free pass for police actions during the protests and played down his role in a property scandal unearthed by another outlet. “It’s not critical at all,” one current reporter told me of the interview. (Chow said that while he believed Hong Kong’s police had room for improvement, they had become demonized by the public and the voice of the force was often missing from media coverage of the protests. “If you draw the comparison between the Hong Kong police and the police in the U.S. and U.K. and any other part of the world,” he said “I would say they are not particularly bad.” Chow added that The Atlantic was “in a sense joining the bullying gang,” by singling out the SCMP’s police coverage because of the difficulties faced by reporters who wrote positively about the force.)

On the opinion side, the SCMP has withdrawn five stories purportedly written by Lin Nguyen, a fictitious personality who was part of a network of fake journalists exposed by the Daily Beast that published opinion pieces in various publications around the globe. The retractions came days after Alex Lo, a columnist based in Canada, unequivocally declared that the “US has been exposed for funding last year’s Hong Kong protests,” in a piece that was based on a Time magazine report and offered scant evidence to back up the claim, a popular narrative pushed by Beijing and Lam’s administration. Chow said the paper had committed a “slip of judgment,” when it came to the Nguyen stories, and emphasized that Lo’s piece ran in the opinion section, adding that the paper could not verify if  “Time magazine’s story is true or not.” Kua said in his statement that the SCMP reviewed and strengthened its verification process for submissions in response to the Daily Beast revelations.

Still, concerns abound. As restrictions grow on international media in Hong Kong and across China, and smaller news organizations in the city are put under greater scrutiny—the founder of Hong Kong Free Press, an English-language outlet, argued in The Guardian that the confusion set out by the national-security law was “a feature, not a bug,” and was designed to push journalists to “self-censor”—the SCMP’s importance when it come to coverage of the country will only grow. How it manages the balance between these new, blurry, red lines and Hong Kong’s history of a free and open press will matter far beyond the territory’s borders.

Liu, Chow, other senior editors, and some journalists have bristled at criticism of the newspaper, lamenting that its ownership makes it an unfair target. Following a 2018 story in the Times that was critical of the SCMP, Liu sent an email to staff, reviewed by The Atlantic, in which he said the article “disappoints me, it does not surprise me,” and that it “misrepresents our mission and mischaracterizes our transformation.” (No corrections or clarifications have been made to the Times story.) At the end of his interview with The Atlantic, Chow offered a vague warning about writing critically about the newspaper. “The last thing I want to say is I hope your story can be factual. If it is not, if it is anyway defamatory to SCMP and our colleagues, we will defend ourselves,” he said. Asked how he would do this, Chow responded, “I don’t need to tell you, Tim. But I can tell you we will defend ourselves.”

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