South China Morning Post Accused of Self-Censorship

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s premier English language newspaper, has come under fire for allegedly censoring a story about the death of dissident Li Wangyang, who was found hanged under suspicious circumstances in a hotel in Hunan. Reuters reports:

On June 7, the English-language Post printed a full story on the suspicious death of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang in hospital on the mainland, but in an abrupt about-turn, cut the story back to a news brief buried in the back pages.

Li had just been released from more than 22 years in jail for his role in the June 4, 1989, pro-democracy protests in Beijing when he was found dead in hospital in Hunan province, his neck tied with a noose made from bandages. Authorities said it was suicide, but his family suspect foul play.

Prominent coverage by other Hong Kong media helped generate a public outcry, protests and a rare request by Hong Kong’s leader for an investigation into the tragedy by Beijing.

In a tense email exchange circulated widely in media circles, Alex Price, a sub-editor at the paper, asked his Chinese editor-in-chief, Wang Xiangwei, why the story was cut down in a way that “looks an awful lot like self-censorship”.

An editorial in Asia Sentinel gives more details about the exchange between Wang Xiangwei and Alex Price:

Alex Price, a senior sub editor at the paper, sent Wang an email saying “A lot of people are wondering why we nibbed the Li Wangyang story last night. It does seem rather odd. Any chance you can shed some light on the matter?”

Wang answered curtly: “I made that decision.” When Price asked in a subsequent email: “Any chance you say why? It’s just that to the outside world it looks an awful lot like self-censorship,” it generated an explosion from Wang.

“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.”

“Li Wangyang, a good man died for his cause and we turned it from a story into a brief. The rest of Hong Kong splashed on it,” Price responded. “Your staff are understandably concerned by this. News is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations. Please explain the decision to reduce the suspicious death of Li Wangyang to a brief. I need to be able to explain it to my friends who are asking why we did it. I’m sorry but your reply of “it is my decision, if you don’t like it you know what to do” is not enough in such a situation. Frankly it seems to be saying “shut up or go.”

Earlier this year, Asia Sentinel published another report questioning whether the South China Morning Post is being unduly influenced by Beijing (via Shanghaiist). Read more about Li Wangyang, the South China Morning Post, and about Hong Kong media via CDT.