The Hong Kong Journalists Association has urged three news outlets as well as a group of local media chiefs visiting Beijing to explain the “highly unusual” retraction of multiple reports that included a controversial remark attributed to China’s top propaganda official.
The organisation’s chairman, citing concerns over self-censorship in the local media, said on Wednesday that such retractions were “unprecedented, unimaginable and very alarming”.
On Thursday morning, delegation leader Siu Sai-wo, who has been at the centre of the controversy, told the Post he was considering taking legal action over what he called “untrue reports” on the saga, though he declined to disclose which and how many Hong Kong media outlets he would target or on what grounds he would file the case.
"I am considering. I won't make further comments," Siu said.
In an earlier statement issued hours after the association’s call for clarification, the delegation head said the reports had been “handled” in this manner to guarantee their accuracy. He did not mention the retractions.
The controversy had erupted on Tuesday after the delegation met Huang Kungming and Xu Lin, head and deputy head respectively of the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department.
Following the meeting, Siu was asked by reporters whether Huang had commented on a recent incident involving the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) in Hong Kong.
In a live broadcast, Siu replied: “[Huang] hoped Hong Kong media would not turn the city into a base for interfering in mainland politics.”
Three Hong Kong media outlets – two major television stations and a radio station – that carried Siu’s comment later took their reports offline or cut the quote from the remaining footage.
Cable News removed its story featuring Siu’s quote on Tuesday night while a video clip of the interview was deleted from its Facebook page on Wednesday morning.
Commercial Radio also deleted its report from its website on Tuesday night.
TVB News did not include Siu’s quote in its broadcast later but highlighted his comment that Huang said there should be more media reports on the “Greater Bay Area”, a central government project spanning Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province that aims to create an IT powerhouse to rival Silicon Valley.
Siu provided a late-night clarification on Tuesday after the removal of the reports raised eyebrows.
He told the Post he felt flustered after some delegation members said he had misquoted Huang and later double-checked the correct quote in his notes and confirmed it with other media chiefs.
Siu said the “exact quote from Huang” was: “Under ‘one country, two systems’, [you] should prevent external forces from turning Hong Kong into a base for interfering with and destroying the mainland.”
In a fresh statement on Wednesday, Siu said: “If the oral version of my quote and its written version are different, the written version should be referred to as the accurate one.”
The association, the biggest journalists’ group in Hong Kong, urged the media outlets that had deleted their reports to clarify whether they had done so because of pressure from Beijing.
“[Fellow journalists] are concerned about whether it is a case of self-censorship or external pressure on Hong Kong media,” it said in a statement.
Association chairman Chris Yeung Kin-hing urged the delegation and the outlets involved to make clarifications to ease concerns over censorship.
“Otherwise, their own reputation, and that of the whole news industry, will suffer,” he said.
The staff union of RTHK, Hong Kong’s public broadcaster, also issued a statement on Wednesday night, urging the station’s senior management to clarify whether its report on the Tuesday meeting had been censored. RTHK’s report did not mention Siu’s quote.
In response, a spokesman for RTHK said the news division had handled the coverage as usual, no changes had been made and there was no interference of any kind.
Wong Wing-hang, Commercial Radio’s director of news and public affairs, told the Post to “refer to Siu’s statement” when asked about the station’s retraction. Wong, a delegation member who chairs the Hong Kong News Executives’ Association, said Beijing officials had told them the meeting was for “internal communication only” and “not for reporting”.
TVB assistant general manager Tam Sik-yeung said the broadcaster had exercised “editorial independence” in handling reports on Siu’s quotes.
Ida Chan, manager of Cable News’ live news channel, said the story was “out of her hands” after the live broadcast. Cable News executive director Ronald Chiu Ying-chun did not reply to inquiries from the Post.