Kin Cheung/AP/File
Editorial staff members of the Ming Pao newspaper hold the front page of their newspaper with the headline on the former editor Kevin Lau who was assaulted and injured during a protest outside the paper's office in February 2014. The assault raised concerns of declining press freedom in Hong Kong, which were reignited earlier this week when The South China Morning Post fired four columnists.

Hong Kong paper loses four top voices: A pro-China 'putsch'?

Critics say that cutting four prominent columnists at the South China Morning Post has diminished Hong Kong's status as a champion of press freedom.

The ejection of at least four veteran columnists from Hong Kong's English-language paper of record, the South China Morning Post, has reignited concerns over press freedom in this former British colony.

Steve Vines, one of the ousted columnists, calls the simultaneous departure of senior voices that were sometimes critical of Beijing and Hong Kong as a “putsch,” though the reasons behind the enforced departures remain murky. The other columnists were Philip Bowring, Frank Ching, and Kevin Rafferty. On Tuesday, a spokesman for the paper said accusations that the four were sacked for their views were “groundless" and that the real reason was a new effort by the paper to "deepen and diversify" its content. 

The paper is owned by the Kuok family, who are Malaysian Chinese and who have extensive investments in mainland China. The change takes place amid growing sentiment by local media watchers, as well as some of the paper’s former employees, that the SCMP is progressively tilting toward China’s Communist Party-led government under the editorship of Wang Xiangwei, a mainland-born journalist with considerable overseas experience.

The move to cut the regular columnists touches a sensitive nerve in this city of 7 million people, even though the overwhelming majority of newspaper readers do not rely on the English-language media for news. There is a widespread sense that the spectrum of allowable opinion is shrinking, despite an assertive press corps and the absence of government-imposed censorship.

That worry was underscored during last year’s 79-day Umbrella Movement demonstrations, when pro-government protesters blocked the premises of Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s only avowedly pro-democracy paper. The Daily's publisher, Jimmy Lai, had a Molotov cocktail tossed outside his private residence and also had pig offal thrown on him as he sat in a tent during the demonstrations for fair elections.

The four SCMP writers are well known and together represent decades of experience commenting on local, regional, and world affairs. They were told by individual letters that their regular column in the news section is no longer expected. They are free, however, to compete for space with lesser-paid freelancers and academics willing to write for free.

Mr. Vines is an active member of the pro-democracy Civic Party and a frequent government critic.

Mr. Rafferty comments on a wide range of issues, most recently the British elections.

Mr. Bowring opines on many issues and is a trenchant analyst of Hong Kong government policy and finances. He comes from an established Hong Kong family and is married to a high-profile Civic Party legislator and former journalist, Claudia Mo.

Mr. Ching worked 10 years for The New York Times and opened the Wall Street Journal’s Beijing bureau in 1979. But he only occasionally writes on Hong Kong affairs, and is married to Anna Wu, who sits on Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s highest-level of advisors, the Executive Council. It is clearly a mixed bag.

Some SCMP staff members speaking through intermediaries have denied the columnists were “axed,” implying that cost was among the factors.

The paper’s decision to cease the regular columns comes during an especially tough period for journalists here. The international press watchdog Reporters Without Borders ranked Hong Kong 70th in its 2015 world press freedom index, down from 61st the year before – the city's worst ranking since the index was launched in 2002, when it ranked 18th globally.

The lower ranking likely was due to events like those in February 2014, when cleaver-wielding thugs attacked Kevin Lau, a journalist for the respected Ming Pao newspaper. The assault came not long after he had been removed as editor and shifted sideways to another post. Thousands of concerned journalists marched through the streets under the slogan: “They can’t kill us all.”

Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, recently said that Hong Kong journalists “have been facing great pressures and challenges while the press has been under assault. Both local and foreign investigations have shown that the press freedom of Hong Kong has been continuously decreased.”

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