May 2, 2002

The South China Morning Post's decision on Monday to sack its Beijing Bureau Chief Jasper Becker for "insubordination" came as a shock to his colleagues and readers in Hong Kong and China.

Mr. Becker is prolific and hard-working, but more importantly he is highly regarded for digging deeply into the guts of a story and not shying away from telling the unpleasant truth -- even when it might cost him a tongue-lashing from China's media-minders or jeopardize his visa. He is also the author of two well-regarded books on China, one of which broke new ground in exposing the man-made famine unleashed by Mao Tse-tung's ill-conceived Great Leap Forward campaign. He has won several Human Rights Awards from Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club for reporting on North Korea's famine and China's [persecution] on the Falun Gong.

In short, when a journalist of this caliber makes a stand on principle at considerable cost to himself and his family, it's worth sitting up and paying attention. And that's what Mr. Becker did by traveling to Hong Kong last month to tell the Post's editor, Thomas Abraham, that he couldn't live with the editorial decisions of the Post's China editor, Wang Xiangwei, formerly of the state-run China Daily. For that he lost his job. He has since made public his allegations of Mr. Wang's tendency to shy away from assigning staff reporters to cover difficult topics, for instance the recent labor unrest in China's northeast provinces, and the editors' refusal to allow a reporting trip to Tibet. The Post's spokeswoman denies these are signs of self-censorship.

Make no mistake, there is still much original reporting that is worth reading in the Post, and we mean no disrespect to the many journalists with integrity who work there. But the trend line is not encouraging. The paper's growing reliance on wire services to cover important stories was already apparent to readers not privy to the internal battles over coverage. The once steady stream of cutting-edge reporting from China has gradually but noticeably subsided.

That brings no joy to anyone who cares about the truth, even here at a paper that competes with the Post in some markets. Some of this may be attributed to budget cuts, which are sadly a fact of life throughout the media business these days. But consider that there is a track record of the Post's owners -- the Kerry Group, which is owned by the family of Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok and has significant business interests in mainland China -- of applying pressure on the editors to alter coverage, as former editor Jonathan Fenby writes.

The pace of change appreciably accelerated around the time Mr. Kuok's son, Ean, took over as chief executive of the paper two years ago. The elder Mr. Kuok wrote a letter to the editor criticizing the then China editor Willy Wo-Lap Lam for "absolute exaggeration and fabrication." A few months later, Mr. Lam was stripped of his post, and decided to leave the paper. In response, 115 of the Post's journalists signed a protest petition, a sign that a strong culture of journalistic integrity persists among the staff.

But for how much longer, given the pressure from above? It's telling that recently some of the best news stories in the Post have been about Indonesia and Singapore, rather than its own back yard of Hong Kong and China. Last year, budget cuts were blamed for the loss of the Focus page, a venue for in-depth commentary on important issues. The opinion page survives for now, and still manages to publish some provocative articles. But the opportunities for journalists to do ground-breaking work on issues that might offend the Hong Kong and mainland governments are shrinking. (Full disclosure: We benefited indirectly from this turmoil, as the Post's former editorial page editor, Danny Gittings, was subsequently laid off and joined our staff.)

The fear of Beijing-style government censorship coming to Hong Kong after the 1997 handover may have proved ill-founded, but the mainland Chinese culture of self-censorship has successfully infiltrated the territory's media. It's becoming clear that the trend of newspaper owners in Hong Kong putting business interests above editorial integrity has the power to undermine one of the pillars of Hong Kong's past success, the free flow of information. At some of the Chinese-language publications the problem is arguably more serious than at the Post, which is held to a higher standard because of international attention. Mr. Becker's courageous stand and the sorry result are a warning that Hong Kong may not have a local press that can be truthfully called free for much longer.