Media: The massacre and me: my life as a Hong Kong editor

People I considered friends portrayed me as ready to work for a political commissar

LAST SATURDAY was a pretty routine day at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. We had a couple of good scoops, an investigation into prison conditions and a follow-up to a campaign we have been running for a local businessman held in jail without charge in China. There were editorials to write on prisons and the Balkans.

But for me, as I drove home at night along the harbour, it wasn't really that routine. After four years, this was to be my last day as editor of the South China Morning Post - and the end of an extraordinary period in my life as a journalist.

Since Hong Kong's return to China on 1 July 1997, I had found myself editing an independent, pro-democracy newspaper in the last major country on earth to be ruled by a Communist party, where the media are just a part of the political apparatus.

On the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre this summer, the only references in the mainland press were to the patriotism of the army. The Post ran an eight-column picture of the candlelit vigil in Hong Kong across the top half of the front page under the headline "Tiananmen light undimmed". An editorial and a column from me argued that the massacre must not be consigned to the baggage of history, as Hong Kong's chief executive had suggested.

Two years ago, if you read the foreign press and listened to the democrats here, you wouldn't have believed that any of this could happen. The air was heavy with fearful forecasts. The Post became the particular target. For some, the die had been cast. "On the whole," wrote the editor of a short-lived rival newspaper who is now The Independent's correspondent, "it [the Post] has been neutralised, which is good enough for China's purposes."

When the chairman of the Post hired a consultant from mainland China before the handover, the British and American press ran Big Brother headlines. The fact that he had no influence was not noted then, or subsequently. What grated personally was that colleagues, who I had counted as friends of mine, were happy to portray me as somebody ready to work under a political commissar.

Politicians in the pro-democracy camp picked up the refrain. When I responded, I was told I protested too much and was insecure. Eventually, the reality of what actually appeared in the paper forced some critics to change tack: the new mantra from Jonathan Mirsky, formerly of The Times, was that I had been "shamed" into behaving decently by their criticism.

As a journalist, I could appreciate that there was a version of the Hong Kong story which was so simple as to be irresistible. The place was done for after Chris Patten and Prince Charles sailed off on the royal yacht. For that to be true, the media had to be done for. And for that to be true, the Post, the most high-profile paper in town for the international community, had to be done for, too.

Anything less would be a distinct deviation from the script, so damn the facts. I am still told that I have banned the term "massacre" to describe Tiananmen. In fact, the very opposite was true, and the library database for the paper shows that we used the "M" word well over 100 times a year.

By 1998, Anson Chan, the second-ranking figure in the new administration, was voicing a different concern. She said that I was so anxious to prove my professional credentials that the Post had become far more critical of the new government than it had been of the previous administration.

Certainly, exercising editorial independence became part of the assertion of the liberties promised to Hong Kong. Just as I believed it important to run columns by pro-democracy politicians after they had been deprived of their seats in the legislature. I wasn't perfect, and I certainly acted wrongly on the odd occasion. But if press freedom was still there for the taking, our general approach had to be to grab as much of it as we could.

As some officials recognised, this actually served their purpose - a free press is one of its best arguments to show that the concept of "one country, two systems" for China and Hong Kong is working. But now the administration seems to have decided that enough is enough.

The immediate cause for official concern is our criticism of its decision to ask China's parliament to interpret the Hong Kong constitution after it had lost a landmark immigration case.

We have broken a string of scoops, some of them distinctly unwelcome for the government, and the Post has just been named the best English- language paper in Asia by a regional publishers' association.

But you don't have to look too hard to spot clouds on the horizon. Last month, in an unprecedented statement on Hong Kong, a central government official said that news media here "should explain government policies". On the rule of law, he accused "some newspapers" of causing all the controversy. I wonder who he had in mind?

I was told indirectly that officials in Peking thought my column on the Tiananmen anniversary had "gone too far". Commenting on my departure, a local official told The New York Times that the Post "ought to recognise its responsibilities as the paper people outside Hong Kong read to learn about things here".

In January, I was informed that the owners of the paper, who run a major Asian conglomerate with big investments in Hong Kong and the mainland, had decided not to renew my contract when it expired in May. I was asked, however, to stay on until the end of the year. But when a successor was lined up in the office opposite mine, I reckoned that it was better to step down right away.

Some pro-democracy politicians see this as part of a shift in the political wind in Hong Kong. But Owen Jonathan, chief executive of the South China Morning Post, put it more simply. "Editors do come and go," he told The New York Times. As always, the only way to judge is by what appears each day, and my successor, who is from The Wall Street Journal, is on record as saying that the editorial stance on legal issues and Hong Kong's autonomy will be maintained.

Having been part of such an unusual professional set-up, and having had such a unique personal experience, there was more than a twinge of regret in my heart as I drove along the harbour Expressway on Saturday night towards the glittering lights of central Hong Kong, Count Basie swinging out of the car's CD player. But it is not a complete divorce: 12 hours later, I was sitting down at home to write my Monday column for the leader page. It used to be called "Letter from the Editor". Only the title needed changing.

Jonathan Fenby was editor of the South China Morning Post from 1995-1999.

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