One hundred workers were abruptly laid off from one of Hong Kong’s biggest TV news stations on Tuesday, prompting the resignation of editors and senior editorial staff in protest. Claiming financial losses, recently appointed management at i-Cable news announced the lay-off of the entire staff of i-Cable’s award winning investigative news program, News Lancet. The departures are yet another blow to Hong Kong’s beleaguered free press, and are particularly noteworthy given the network’s private ownership.
Hong Kong Free Press’ Rhoda Kwan reported on i-Cable’s announcement, which was condemned by the Hong Kong Journalist’s Association as politically motivated:
Video footage shows angry staff members confronting management over the mass dismissals, with some questioning why their colleagues, some of them quite senior, were sacked at such short notice.
Tuesday’s mass dismissals were a response to the adverse economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the company said in a statement. “Facing this incredible challenge, i-Cable has vigorously sought to use ways… to maintain our competitiveness such that the corporation can maintain its operations,” it said, adding that the company needed “to fully review and adjust each department’s structure and human resources.”
[…] [The Hong Kong Journalist’s Association] added that the firing of the entire News Lancet team smacked of political considerations. “Given the team’s coverage of the police and the administration, it’s difficult not to see this as minimising sensitive reporting in the name of cost-cutting.” [Source]
Journalists affected by the lay-offs were forced by security to exit the premises immediately on Tuesday morning. Inside sources at i-Cable told the media that news department heads were not consulted beforehand about the layoffs. Tense confrontations between remaining staff and senior management ensued.
In this morning, when news staff gathered around the management and demanded explanations, news director Anderson Chan, a former ATV senior who was parachuted to head iCable News in August, called the reporters “hooligans” 爛仔.
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) December 1, 2020
"Staff questioned why the heads of desks were not consulted beforehand and how news operations can continue after an abrupt dismissal on such a large scale. They also pressed the management for an explanation on shedding the most outstanding staff…"https://t.co/OIJNokcodk
— Rachel Cheung (@rachel_cheung1) December 1, 2020
CDT has previously written about the tightening political control at Hong Kong’s broadcast news networks, including the management changes at i-Cable News. Other networks have been feeling the pressure as well, including public broadcaster RTHK, whose management is under government review after it faced criticism from pro-Beijing figures over its coverage of the 2019 protests.
i-Cable, whose private ownership recently changed hands in 2017, is highly regarded for its news division, which has covered innumerable politically sensitive stories since its founding in 1993. Media scholars in Hong Kong claim that the network has historically been more outspoken and critical that its TV competitors in Hong Kong. It was an i-Cable journalist whose persistent question to Jiang Zemin in 2000 provoked his scolding: “…the questions you ask are too simple – sometimes naive.”
The network’s China news team, whose staff collectively resigned in solidarity with their laid off colleagues, stands out for the accolades it has won over the years. Yuen Chan, a former reporter and professor of journalism in Hong Kong, wrote about the team in a 2017 story for Hong Kong Free Press:
The Cable News China team in particular is highly regarded for its consistently solid and at times courageous reporting. Memorable stories include a series on the soldiers who conducted China’s nuclear tests in the 1960s and who consequently suffered lasting health problems, and an exclusive interview with labour organizer Li Wangyang, who spent the longest time in prison of anyone jailed for involvement in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. Four days after the interview was broadcast, Li was found dead in suspicious circumstances in a hospital where he was being treated for heart disease.
Hong Kong journalists working on China stories are used to receiving pressure, in the form of phone calls from the Central Liaison Office and other mainland organs. The veteran Cable journalist I spoke to says they would regularly receive such calls.
“One time, a story was broadcast at 9:48 pm and we got a call at 9:50 pm,” he recalled.
Despite this pressure, he said they rarely felt the heat from top management. He said he got the impression that although i-Cable lost money, former boss Peter Woo was proud of the business and did not personally want to sell it. [Source]
But under its new owners, and particularly after several senior managers were replaced by directors from pro-Beijing networks this year, the station’s reporters have faced intensifying political pressure. Radio Free Asia reported on some of the recent challenges faced by the station’s investigative and China-facing news teams:
Wong Lai-ping, deputy chief of the station’s China News team, which reported on the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and has covered human rights abuses under the CCP, told Reuters she was among those laid off.
The agency said the heads of the China News, Hong Kong General News, Finance News, and Editing desks at i-Cable had also resigned.
News Lancet and the China News teams last year joined forces to produce a special program marking the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but the program was shelved by managers, who had said there was too much “bloodstained history” in it.
News Lancet also ran an investigative feature on the manipulation of public opinion, which some in the industry believe could have catalyzed the firings at i-Cable. [Source]
The departure of many of i-Cable’s most highly regarded journalists is likely an existential threat to the survival of the network. The network has recorded financial losses for years, and saw off seemingly imminent collapse in 2017 only after a last minute takeover bid by a consortium of investors. Discussions over its sale were reportedly marred by political considerations, particularly after early negotiations collapsed after the abduction of Chinese billionaire businessman Xiao Jianhua from a Hong Kong hotel.
Reporters in Hong Kong are famously underpaid despite working long hours under high pressure, earning on average less than USD $30,000 a year. Despite these conditions, staff had hoped to stave off lay-offs with further pay cuts and cost cutting measures:
China news deputy Wong Lai-ping’s voice began to shake when she recalled how iCable ignored the efforts her team paid despite pay cut.
”It’s really frustrating that people who want to do news are led by people who don’t know how to. Under the national security law, reporting environment in HK can be worse than mainland China because the police in mainland can reason and you know more clearly what can’t be done.” pic.twitter.com/dBo5XNLYaQ
— Xinqi Su 蘇昕琪 (@XinqiSu) December 1, 2020
Recent coverage would appear to signal new management’s intention of reshaping the network.
Footage obtained by Apple Daily showed #HongKong CE Carrie Lam asking parachuted #CableTV news controller Oscar Lee why his interview questions are so "mild", praising him for being "cooperative". pic.twitter.com/GOok0LCwtg
— Frances Sit (@frances_sit) December 1, 2020
Heartbreaking scene when reporters handed in their resignation. https://t.co/IAHg1lGgU0
— Alvin Lum (@alvinllum) December 1, 2020
After mass resignation in protest, @icablenews’ China desk posted a photo of its members, saying: “We will work hard on our reports in the remaining days, thank you for your support over the years.” pic.twitter.com/jfpVvVDLPN
— Kris Cheng (@krislc) December 1, 2020