Paul Mooney – Self-censorship in SCMP

On April 22, Wang Xiangwei, the new editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post,informed me that my contract with the newspaper would not be renewed when it expired on May 21. I can’t say I was surprised.

Sitting in a hotel restaurant in Hong Kong on a hot April day, Wang stared down at the table as the conversation began, seemingly unwilling to make eye contact. After a few minutes of chit chat, I asked him directly about my contract. He fidgeted and said he would not be able to renew it due to budget problems.

To me it was clear that this was a political decision. For seven months, he had basically blocked me from writing any China stories for the newspaper. During that period, I only had two stories in the China pages of the newspaper–one on panda bears and one on compensation for AIDS victims. Some two dozen other story suggestions went unanswered by the China Desk–in one case a story was approved, but the editor told me Wang had overruled him. A half-dozen emails to Wang pleading to write more for the newspaper went unanswered.

It certainly was not about money. Following my departure, Wang hired a spate of new young reporters, many apparently from the mainland. And if there were budget problems, why was I chosen to be let go? Obviously, there were newer people at the newspaper than myself. I had been on contract for two years, and wrote my first article for the newspaper in 1990, some 22 years ago. And I’d won 10 awards for my reporting for the newspaper, more than any other staff reporter.

When I offered to freelance and said I didn’t care about the word rate, he hemmed and hawed. When I asked if the newspaper could at least allow me to keep my journalist accreditation with the South China Morning Post, so I could continue to contribute articles to the newspaper, he muttered something about having to think about it. Despite several emails asking about this, he never agreed to do this. And there was no cost in sponsoring me.

When the news came last year that Wang had been appointed the editor-in-chief, I was quite surprised. For one, despite talk of him being a veteran journalist, he had little actual practical experience doing real journalism–far less than a lot of his staff. Wang had worked for the China Daily, done a masters degree in journalism and had gone off to London on a training program, where he worked briefly for the BBC. As far as I know, he never “pounded the sidewalks,” as we American journalists say of a reporter who has spent years roaming around doing interviews.

He’d shown weakness in news judgement on many occasions, but more important, he’d long had a reputation as being a censor of the news, which may be what endeared him to Mr. Robert Kuok, the Malaysian tycoon who owns the newspaper, and his son and daughter, who took turns running the newspaper.

Talk to anyone on the China reporting team at the South China Morning Post and they’ll tell you a story about how Wang has cut their stories, or asked them to do an uninteresting story that was favorable to China.

Last November, I traveled to the US on holiday and decided to take a train to meet Geng He, the wife of rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who had snuck past Chinese security guarding their Bejing home with a young son and daughter, making it all the way to Thailand and eventually political asylum in the US.

During a three-hour interview in a highway Burger King, Ms. Geng gave me unreported details about the harrowing escape through Southeast Asian jungles, much of it in the middle of the night. She cried as she talked about her husband’s treatment by brutal security people, and she smiled when she recalled her husband’s dedication as a lawyer. Tears fell as she described the difficulties the family was facing in the US. Both children had been seriously affected by the treatment of their father here in China, which included serious torture and forced disappearances for lengthy periods.

An editor expressed interest in the story, but got back to me later in the day to tell me that Wang had spiked it. No reason was given.

When I was the second foreign reporter to see Gao during his brief respite from being disappeared, Editor-in-chief Reg Chua and Deputy Editor David Lague had a bitter argument with Wang, who was not keen to run the story. They wanted it on the front page, but Wang wanted it buried inside. They compromised by putting the story inside and cutting it slightly. Gao Zhisheng was obviously on Wang’s list of people not to be reported about.

When the government began its nasty crackdown against rights lawyers and other dissidents last year, that saw people have black hoods thrown over their heads before being stuffed into a car, and then being taken to hidden location, where most endured horrible torture. I saw an unprecedented pattern of intimidation and pain that clearly marked a new and frightening trend and so I suggested a story to the China Desk (David Lague, the deputy editor, was on holiday at the time). The story was immediately rejected by a China Desk editor, who said the newspaper had reported on tortured lawyers already. I wrote a short note saying this was a new and different trend, but I knew it would go unanswered.

When David Lague returned weeks later, I submitted the story to him and he immediately said to go ahead. I finished the story, but it sat on China Desk for about three months, a practice I later learned was not uncommon when Wang wanted to let a story shrink in importance. When I wrote to David Lague, he pleaded he no longer had the authority he used to have. Silence of the Dissidents ran three months later, and I went on to win two awards for the story the China Desk tried to kill.

During their time at the newspaper, the two veteran journalists frequently battled fiercely with Mr. Wang over stories, with the daughter of Mr. Robert Kuok, the Malaysian owner of the newspaper, frequently siding with Wang. Insiders say the Kuoks long coddled Wang, believing he had influence in China.

Nor was I the only foreign reporter to be pushed out of the newspaper–I follow a long line of foreigners–each with long experience–who saw their contracts allowed to run out by Wang–this way he could plead innocence: You’ve not been fired, your contract ran out. There are now no foreign reporters working for the South China Morning Post in China–a first in a long while.

One good example is the case of former Guangzhou correspondent Leu Siew Ying, a native of Malaysia, who won the European Commission’s Lorenzo Natali Grand Prize in 2006 for her reporting on protests in the village of Taishi the previous year. She left the paper in 2007 after disputes with Mr. Wang about following up on Taishi and pressure from the Guangdong authorities.

During Wang’s time with the newspaper, several foreign editors were offered the job of editor-in-chief, but most left after fighting a losing battle with the former China Daily reporter and member of the Jinlin Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The Kuoks always made it clear where their loyalties lay.

But this is not just a case of foreign reporters being harassed. Talk to just about any one of the excellent Chinese or Hong Kong reporters writing about China for the newspaper, and, if they’re willing to talk, they’ll quietly tell about Wang spiking perfectly good stories or of being told to write more “positive” articles.

It’s interesting that the story that finally exposed Wang was one about the mysterious death of June 4 activist Li Wangyang, which barely got coverage in the newspaper.

After a sub on the desk questioned this gap in the newspaper’s reporting, about a story that other Hong Kong media had jumped on eagerly, Wang curtly told the sub off. “I don’t have to explain to you anything. I made the decision and I stand by it. If you don’t like it, you know what to do.”

When the news gained international attention, and his own reporters signed a letter asking for an explanation, a worried Wang responded with a statement to staff that he decided to run the story as a brief on the first day because he felt the newspaper didn’t have enough hard facts for a full story.

But what Wang failed to say was that the newspaper had in fact run a much longer story on Li’s death in its first edition and that Wang had chosen to yank it, shave it down to a brief for the next edition, and replace it with an article about former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui and a conversation he had with a group of students–a story that had already run two days earlier. What few have noticed, is that self-censorship is not the only problem. Possibly more worrying is the newspaper’s new-found proclivity under Wang to publish dubious stories that reflect Beijing’s views.

Earlier this year, deputy editor Tammy Tam gushed like a high school girl in a story about the Chinese Panchen Lama, asking only one serious question of a person who has never appeared in the Western media before. Eric X. Li, a well-known apologist for China, has been writing regular columns for the South China Morning Post. In one recent article he slapped Hong Kong citizens on the wrist for not welcoming mainland women to have their babies in the territory, and then wondering aloud if a people like this deserved the right to vote. Last week came a story by Professor Jiang Shigong, deputy director of Peking University’s Centre for Hong Kong and Macau Studies, that claimed “Hongkongers accept Beijing’s rule.”

In his own weekly commentary, Wang had egg on his face after predicting that disgraced Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai had escaped any serious trouble. “Firstly, Bo’s political career looks safe for now and he has apparently managed to push back the pressure from his opponents within the party,” Wang wrote just before Bo fell hard.

Another article described Tibetans in Lhasa happily celebrating the Tibetan New Year, with quotes coming from one unidentified “middle-aged Tibetan man.” Meanwhile, more objective reports were reporting a dire situation in the Tibetan area. The article read like a China Daily story.

While the South China Morning Post continues to publish good critical reportage on China, the newspaper no longer has the status it had in the late 1990s, or more recently under three years direction under Mr. Chua and Lague, when the newspaper made great advances.

Under Wang’s stewardship, the newspaper has lost credibility with Hong Kong and international readers and is now often the butt of jokes in the local Chinese media there. Sadly, the South China Morning Post, which has a history of more than 100 years, may be beyond the point of return. With credibility and morale at the newspaper sagging, and controversies on the rise, competent journalists will now be reluctant to join the newspaper, and it can only sink deeper into mediocrity. The prospects for English-language journalism in Hong Kong is not good and this is sad.

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被解約記者Paul Mooney自述:我為什麼被踢出《南華早報》?

陽光時務】4月22日,《南華早報》的新任總編輯王向偉通知我,《南華早報》與我的工作合約在今年5月21日期滿後將不再續約。說實話,對此我一點也不吃驚。

那是在4月的某天,天氣炎熱,王與我在香港一間酒店的餐廳裏談話。他開口時眼睛望著桌子,看起來根本不想與我有眼神接觸。隨便聊了幾分鐘後,我單刀直入地問他我的合約問題。

他有些坐立難安,說,因為財務上的問題,他沒法給我續約了。

在我看來,這明明白白是個包含政治考量的決定。在過去的七個月裏,他幾乎不讓我給《南華早報》寫任何跟中國有關的文章。在這段時間裏,我只有兩篇刊載在《南華早報》中國版塊上的報道,一篇是關於熊貓的,另一篇是關於愛滋病感染受害者賠償的。我給報社的中國新聞編輯組發了二、三十封提出選題建議的郵件,沒得到任何回覆——其中有個選題倒是通過了,但版面編輯告訴我,王把它否決了。我給王發了六、七封郵件,表明我想為《南華早報》多寫些文章,他也從不回覆。

這當然跟錢沒關係。我一離職,王就招聘了好幾個年輕的新人記者,其中很多人都是從中國大陸來的。就算真有財務問題,為什麼是我被解聘?顯而易見,報社裏好多人沒有我資深。兩年前我成為《南華早報》合約僱員,但第一次給《南早》寫文章已經是1990年,22年以前了。我為《南早》贏得了10個新聞獎,比報社其他任何記者都多。

我提出我可以給《南早》做自由撰稿,而且我不計較每個字能拿多少稿費。他聞言只是支支吾吾。我請求報社至少讓我保留《南早》的記者資格證,這樣我還能繼續給報社貢獻各類文章。他聽了咕噥著說他要考慮一下。我後來發了好幾封郵件向他求肯,他還是不肯點頭同意。其實在這方面支持我根本不花報社一分錢。

去年,當我得知王向偉晉升為總編輯時,我非常驚訝。不說別的,不管外界說他是個多麼資深的記者,他其實都沒多少做新聞的一線經驗,遠遠比他的很多員工要少。王在《中國日報》工作過,拿過一個新聞學碩士學位,去過倫敦參加一個相關的訓練項目,在那時短暫地給BBC工作過。據我所知,他從來就沒「在外頭跑過」——就是我們美國記者說的花多年時間踏遍大江南北做採訪。

在很多事件裏,王已經顯露出他新聞判斷不準確,但更重要的是,他一直有個「審查新聞」的名聲——也許《南華早報》的大老闆、馬來西亞富豪郭鶴年和他輪流經營此報的兒女就是看上了他這點。

隨便跟《南華早報》中國報道組的任何一個人聊聊,他都會告訴你王是怎麼斃掉他的報道,或者怎麼要求他寫中國喜歡看到的無聊文章的。

去年11月,我利用假期去了趟美國,坐火車去看望了中國人權律師高智晟的妻子耿和。此前,她帶著年幼的兒女溜出了被中國國保人員嚴密看守的北京的家,一路逃到了泰國,最終到達美國獲得政治庇護。

我在高速公路旁的Burger King餐廳裏採訪耿女士,訪談持續了三個小時。她告訴了我很多她和兒女在東南亞雨林中連夜逃亡的細節,其中許多事實從未被報道過。說到國保人員如何折磨她丈夫的時候她哭了,但當她歷數她丈夫是如何以律師的身份為社會做出貢獻的時候,她又微笑起來。講到她帶著孩子在美國所遇到的困難時,她還是忍不住流淚。她丈夫仍然在北京被殘酷折磨和長期「被失蹤」,她的兩個孩子為此承受了巨大的衝擊。

一位編輯表示對這篇報道頗感興趣。但一天還沒過他就告訴我,說王向偉(編者注:時任南華早報主管中國報道的副總編輯)駁回了這篇文章。王沒有給出任何解釋。

在高短暫脫離「被失蹤」狀態期間,我是第二個見到他的外國記者。當時,總編輯Reg Chua和副總編David Lague為了這個選題跟王激烈地爭論了一番——王對這個故事表現冷淡。總編和副總編希望這篇報道能上頭版,王卻認為它該被夾在內頁裏。他們最後相互妥協了:在被輕微刪改之後,這篇報道被放入了內頁。高智晟顯然是王不希望報道的對象之一。

自去年中國政府出手迫害人權律師和其他異見人士開始,許多人都被套上黑頭套、塞進車裏然後被押到某個不為人知的地方遭受酷刑。我親眼看到了前所未有的恐嚇和由此帶來的痛楚,我覺得這標識了一種新的使人恐懼的社會趨勢,於是向中國新聞編輯組的編輯進言,建議做一篇專門的報道。當時副總編David Lague在度假。這個想法立刻被中國新聞編輯組的編輯駁回了,理由是《南華早報》已經做過受迫害的人權律師的相關選題了。我寫了便條,解釋說這次是一種全新的完全不同的社會趨勢,但我知道我是得不到回覆的。

David Lague幾周後回來了。我馬上把報道提交給他,他迅速回覆說:去做啊!於是我完成了整篇報道。但是稿子在中國新聞組壓了三個月沒有發出——後來我發現這是王想讓一篇報道的時效性縮水時常用的手法。我寫郵件向David Lague詢問,他無奈辯解道,他已經沒有以前那麼大的職權了。《異見人士的沉默》(Silence of the Dissidents)三個月後發表了。我憑藉這篇中國新聞編輯組想斃掉的稿子拿了兩個獎。

在前總編輯和前副總編還在報社任職的時候,這兩位資深記者總是為了新聞跟王向偉先生和來自馬來西亞的報社老闆郭鶴年的女兒爭執。而老闆總是站在王的那邊。有內部人士說,郭一直以來「寵愛」王,因為相信他在大陸有影響力。

我不是第一個被踢出報社的外國記者。在我之前,一長串經驗豐富的外國記者被王不予續聘。他就用這個辦法來扮無辜:你可不是被炒了哦,只是不被續約而已。現在已經沒有外國記者在《南華早報》中國新聞版供職了——很長時間不曾有這樣的狀況了。

駐廣州站的記者,馬來西亞人Leu Siew Ying就是個其中的絕佳一例。2006年,她因報道年前的太石村罷免事件得過歐盟委員會的洛倫佐納塔利大獎。2007年她與王先生就是否跟進報道太石村事件發生激烈爭執,又受到來自廣州政府的壓力,最終離開了報社。

王向偉在《南華早報》供職期間,好幾位外國編輯都曾被任命為總編輯,但他們都在與這位前《中國日報》記者兼吉林省政協委員鬥爭失敗後離職了。郭鶴年家族總是清楚地表明他們支持誰。

不過,不僅僅是外國記者受到了打擊。跟隨便哪個負責中國方面新聞的優秀的中國或者香港記者聊聊,要他們還願意說,他們都會悄悄告訴你王是怎麼斃掉優秀的新聞稿件,卻告訴他們多寫些「正面」報道。

有趣的是,竟是一篇好不容易才獲刊載的披露李旺陽之死的報道,最終把王暴露在公眾審視之下。

當一位編輯詢問《南華早報》對此事的報道篇幅相對於其他港媒是不是太短,王直接讓他閉嘴。「我不需要向你解釋任何事情。我做了這個決定而且我堅持。如果你不喜歡,你知道該怎麼做。」

當這條新聞獲得了世界性的關注,王的記者們聯名簽署了一封質詢信求一個說法。焦慮的王回應道,他之所以在事件發生後第一天只用很小的篇幅報道此事,是因為他覺得《南華早報》還沒有充足的事實來支撐一篇大的報道。

但王沒有說出來的是,本來報社是準備了一篇更長、更充實的稿件來報道李旺陽之死的,但王卻臨時抽掉了稿件,把它換成了一篇小小的概要,而在空出來的版面上,放上關於台灣前總統李登輝與大學生交流的報道——這是兩天前已報導過的「舊聞」了。

幾乎沒人注意到,自我審查並不是報社唯一的問題。可能更令人擔心的,是《南華早報》在王的領導下出現的新傾向——開始刊載反映中國政府觀點的曖昧報道。

今年年初,在一篇關於十一世班禪喇嘛的報道中,副總編輯譚衛兒像個高中女生一樣滔滔不絕地說廢話,只問了這位從來沒在西方媒體報道中出現過的人物一個嚴肅的問題。李世默(編者注:上海風險投資家)是中國政府著名的辯護人之一,他在《南早》寫定期的專欄。最近他在一篇文章中不輕不重地批評了香港市民,指責他們不讓大陸雙非孕婦來港產子,還對這樣的人民是否有資格進行民主投票表示懷疑。上週,北京大學港澳研究中心副主任強世功(編者注:強世功曾在中聯辦研究部掛職5年,著有《中國香港》一書,並引發香港作家陳冠中撰長文《中國天朝主義與香港》批判)在《南早》刊登評論,稱「香港人服從北京的領導」。

在王自己發表的每週社論裏,他預測重慶市委書記薄熙來會擺脫麻煩,並且因此出了大糗。「第一,薄的政治生涯現在還很安穩,而且他也顯然扛住了黨內各路對手給他帶來的壓力。」王在薄熙來栽了大跟頭之前,這樣寫道。

還有一篇報道描述了拉薩的藏人是如何歡慶藏曆新年的,還引用了一位不具名的「中年藏人」的話。同時,其他媒體卻頻頻報道藏人自焚的種種慘狀。在這樣的背景下,《南早》的那篇文章看起來《中國時報》刊載的那些東西差不多。

雖然《南華早報》依然持續刊載優秀的中國新聞報道,但這份報紙再也不可能回到其在上世紀90年代末的狀態了,甚至回不到這三年來不斷進步的勁頭上了。

在王的管理下,這份報紙已經失去了香港乃至於國際讀者的信任。它現在幾乎淪落為中國本地媒體中的一個笑話了。

可悲的是,《南華早報》這份歷史超過百年的老牌報紙,可能等不到轉捩點了。失去了公信力和士氣,它一步步走向衰落,而報社內的保守主義卻日益興盛。有競爭力的記者不會願意加入這樣的報社。而《南華早報》也將因此在平庸的泥沼中越陷越深。香港英文報刊的整體前景堪憂,這真是可悲。

Reference: 香港雜評 – 被解約記者Paul Mooney自述:我為什麼被踢出《南華早報》?

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