Hong Kong journalists protest at editor's sacking with blank columns

BBC CHINESE PHOTO / MARTIN YIP: This illustrative photo taken in Hong Kong, 27 Apr 2016, shows an emptied column in the Ming Pao newspaper on that day by academic and activist Dr Brian Fong. Image copyright BBC Chinese
Image caption Ming Pao newspaper is facing a staff revolt

For the fourth consecutive day on Wednesday, some columnists at Hong Kong's prestigious broadsheet, Ming Pao, left their spaces blank.

The unusual protest is part of an extraordinary staff revolt at the independently minded newspaper, following last week's unexpected firing of executive chief editor Keung Kwok-yuen.

The dismissal was announced on the same day the paper published front page stories linking local tycoons, politicians and celebrities with a law firm at the centre of the Panama Papers leak.

The newspaper said his sacking was a cost-cutting measure.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The protest comes amid increasing concern over Beijing's influence in the territory

But the Ming Pao Staff Association, a union that represents more than half of the paper's 300 editorial staff, has publicly said the firing was due to Mr Keung's editorial position.

In a statement following the sacking, the association called him the "soul" of the news team: "Mr Keung is a veteran journalist who has spearheaded the coverage of major controversies in Hong Kong in the past decades.

"Among them were the 2003 rally against the national security law, the 2012 campaign against national education, as well as the death of mainland political dissident Li Wang-yan."

Privately, some employees have told the BBC they believe the liberal-leaning Mr Keung was not let go because of the Panama Papers expose, but because of the forthcoming elections in Hong Kong.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Staff put up signs reading "unclear", in Chinese, following Keung Kwok-yuen's dismissal

'Umbrella soldiers'

This autumn, Hong Kong voters will go to the polls to elect their next group of politicians.

It is the first city-wide election since the pro-democracy protests of 2014.

Since then, some young, politically inexperienced protesters, inspired by that "Umbrella Movement", have succeeded in winning district-level elections.

And many more of these so-called "umbrella soldiers" will run for the first time in September.

Some of these groups hold more radical views than traditional pro-democracy candidates, including calling for outright independence for Hong Kong or not rejecting violence in their fight for greater rights.

"If a lot of these young candidates win, it is likely to affect who the Chinese government picks for the role of chief executive next year," said a Ming Pao staffer.

The newspaper is likely to be under pressure from the authorities to toe the line during a politically sensitive period, according to the journalist.

Image caption Some at the paper have even offered to take salary cuts, to pay for Keung Kwok-yuen's return

Ming Pao is a hugely influential newspaper.

This week, it won 15 awards at the annual Hong Kong News Awards competition, organised by the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong.

Staffers attending the ceremony dressed in black to protest against their editor's sacking.

A large photo of the group featured prominently on the paper's front page the next day.

Bruce Lui, a columnist for the paper, who wrote about the controversy this week, agrees Mr Keung was fired for his editorial stance.

He believes the editor-in-chief, Chong Tien Siong, was asked by management to rein in the outspoken newspaper when he was appointed in 2014, but has failed to do so, in part due to Mr Keung.

Mr Chong, a Malaysian journalist, is widely believed to be more pro-Beijing than Mr Keung in his editorial position.

The BBC took these allegations to Mr Chong and to Ming Pao management but he did not respond and they declined to comment.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption It is not the first time an editor at the paper has drawn the support of staff, here getting signatures in support of former editor Kevin Lau after he was stabbed by mainland Chinese attackers, shortly after being sacked in early 2014

The newspaper is owned by Malaysian billionaire Tiong Hiew King, who runs a global business empire, with operations in mainland China.

Ming Pao's management has maintained Keung Kwok-yuen's firing was an operational, not editorial, decision.

But staff members do not accept this explanation and at a meeting with top management on Wednesday threatened industrial action.

In an unusual gesture, staff offered to cut their pay or benefits in exchange for reinstating Mr Keung.

The union has vowed to escalate its protest if it does not receive a fair explanation and settlement from management.