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A newsroom at the edge of autocracy; The South China Morning Post is arguably the world’s most important newspaper for what it tells us about media freedoms as China’s power grows

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  1. Kuromantis
    (edited )

    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.

    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.”

    2 votes