Since it was announced in December that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba was buying Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, many observers have kept a watchful eye on the paper for any signs of acquiescence to Beijing’s political influence. The Post’s recent interview with legal assistant Zhao Wei has raised hackles among this group. The interview, conducted after Zhao was allegedly released on bail after being charged with subversion, was arranged when even her husband and lawyer were unable to contact her. The newspaper has failed to explain how they contacted Zhao or whether she was under police surveillance while responding to questions. Tom Phillips reports for The Guardian:
The interview with her was conducted by telephone on 10 July, just three days after Zhao’s release was announced, and was published the following day under the headline: ‘Young Chinese legal activist ‘regrets’ civil rights activism’.
“I have come to realise that I have taken the wrong path,” Zhao was quoted as saying in the article. “I repent for what I did. I’m now a brand new person.”
The story did not make clear how the SCMP had managed to make contact with Zhao and activists, media experts and Zhao’s husband and lawyer suspect the interview was set up by mainland authorities and conducted against her will.
They are demanding answers from the newspaper about the circumstances in which its reporter – who it has not named – was able to contact her.
“To be honest, I feel odd as well,” Zhao’s lawyer, Yan Huafeng, told the Guardian. “Even though I am her defence lawyer … I don’t know how they got in touch with each other.” [Source]
The interview with Zhao was reminiscent of the public confessions by imprisoned lawyers, activists, and writers that have been broadcast on state media in China in recent months, adding to concerns of Chinese government involvement. Soon after Zhao’s reported release, her lawyer, Ren Quanniu issued a letter of “apology” for spreading rumors after he reported that Zhao had been sexually assaulted in prison. Human rights activists pointed out that Ren wrote the letter while under police detention and while his family and lawyers were being harassed and intimidated by police.
In an environment of tightening media controls in Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post is often viewed as a bellwether of threats to press freedom in the territory. Even before the takeover by Alibaba, the paper had been accused of self-censorship, notably over its reporting on the suspicious death of mainland activist Li Wangyang. A recent report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association said the past year had be an “extremely difficult” time for Hong Kong media, and that “press freedom was being eroded at its roots.” When Alibaba purchased the SCMP, the company declared that it intended to uphold the paper’s editorial independence, but also stated its goal of improving China’s image on the world stage. In a reply to Tom Phillips’ request for more information about the circumstances behind the Zhao Wei interview, SCMP accused him of “selective bias”:
— Tom Phillips (@tomphillipsin) July 26, 2016