Background Briefing

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>

Intimidation of Prominent Journalists

Albert Cheng and Wong Yuk-man are longtime fixtures on Hong Kong’s media scene. Both are known for their on-air rants criticizing the government but, beyond that, the two men have different broadcasting styles and different pet issues. “They would be rude to callers that they disagreed with,” one former listener said, remembering how callers who disagreed with the hosts would regularly be shouted down. “They were vitriolically (sic) anti-Beijing.”46

“They were immensely popular, very influential broadcasters,” a former listener and expert on human rights issues in Hong Kong said. Yes, there were other broadcasters who are critical of the government, but, he added, “they were much better entertainment value.”47

Both men locked horns with the government over its handling of SARS in 2003, both were heavily critical of the government’s Article 23 proposals, and both urged their listeners to take part in the July 2003 protest. The two men also took to the streets that day; Cheng marched along with his listeners, and, shouting into a megaphone, urged passersby to take part.48

Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man, 53, was the host of the talk show “Close Encounters of a Political Kind,” broadcast from 6.30 to 8pm on weeknights on Hong Kong’s Commercial Radio. “You used to hear him in every taxi,” one listener recalled. “He had an aggressive, grating style.” Wong was known for his loud fulminations against pro-Beijing politicians and businessmen in Hong Kong.49

Albert  “Tai Pan” Cheng King-hon, 58, is no stranger to controversy. A millionaire many times over, Cheng made his fortune in the early 1980s by bringing out the first Chinese-language editions of Playboy and Forbes in Hong Kong. In 1995, Cheng began broadcasting “Teacup in a Storm,” which quickly became Hong Kong’s top-rated radio show. Cheng was almost killed in a butcher knife attack in August 1998 outside his studio at Commercial Radio. The attack came soon after Cheng made comments about organized crime in Hong Kong on his show. His assailants were never brought to justice.

Cheng ran afoul of the government in April 2003, when he attacked two government officials in separate shows for what he saw as their incompetence. Cheng called a government housing official “doglike,” and insulted a health department official for failing to protect health workers against SARS.

In a decision that raised concerns over press censorship, the government Broadcasting Authority issued an official reprimand to Cheng, citing in particular his use of language, his habit of interrupting his on-air guests, and the fact that he did not give his guests equal time.50 Cheng pled guilty on all counts. “I’m rude, and why not? There are no laws that say I can’t be rude,” Cheng told a journalist after the warning was issued. “I’m rude, I interrupt, and I’m impolite.”

The timing of the censure also struck many observers as strange, coming just weeks before the sixth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover and the planned July 1 memorial protests. “I’ve been calling high officials dogs for many, many years,” Cheng said. “I don’t know why this is a problem now.”51

Unsurprisingly, both men are viewed – and view themselves – as barometers of press freedom in Hong Kong. Even before the handover, Cheng was held up as a man to watch, as a good yardstick of press freedom in Hong Kong. Wong, not one to mince words, told a journalist, immodestly, perhaps, but accurately, “I’m an icon of free speech in Hong Kong.”52

Because of their huge audiences, both men were in a position to influence government policy, and both used their radio shows to take on the Hong Kong government. “They (the two hosts) were very effective,” one listener said. “They put a lot of pressure on the government, leading from time to time to a change of policy.”53

When the SARS crisis hit Hong Kong, Cheng in particular was very vocal in his dissatisfaction with the government, voicing criticisms that found many in Hong Kong nodding their heads in agreement. “There were a lot of other incidents where (Albert Cheng) was able to stir up a response,” said one listener. “And government officials felt pressure from him.”54

But Cheng didn’t just criticize: he also tried to mobilize the public to take action. “He raised money for all health officials to have masks,” one pro-democratic legislator recalled. “Large sums of money were raised.”55 Cheng also urged his listeners to donate oranges to health workers, reflecting the popular perception that vitamin C would be helpful against SARS.

The threats against Cheng and Wong

In March, Wong and Cheng received separate phone calls from a prominent Hong Kong businessman with known triad links. Wong and Cheng were both told by the Hong Kong businessman that he was calling on behalf of a senior Beijing official, and that this official wanted them to stop broadcasting and to leave Hong Kong until after the September elections.56 They were told that they could come back to Commercial Radio after the elections.57

The threats against Cheng and Wong were oddly predicted by Next magazine, which ran an article reporting that a Beijing official had ordered that action be taken against “one newspaper, one magazine, and two microphones.”58 The microphones referred, of course, to Cheng and Wong, the magazine in question was Next itself, and the newspaper was Apple Daily. Both Next and Apple Daily are published by Next Media Group, and both publications are known for their pro-democratic stance and strong criticism of Beijing.

On Wednesday afternoon, March 31, soon after the phone calls, vandals splashed the offices of Innocorp Limited with red paint.59 Innocorp is jointly owned by Cheng and a friend, although Cheng’s financial involvement with the company was not widely known. After the attack, Cheng related the incident to his outspoken criticism of the government. “The use of violence to intimidate or prevent people from expressing their views will damage the ‘one country, two systems’ concept and affect the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong,” Cheng said.60

The next day, Cheng announced that he was taking a few days off from his radio show to mull things over. A month later, on April 29, Cheng announced that he was going on a break of several months, but said that he would return to the show by the end of the year.

Mr. Wong also had the message brought home to him in short order. In mid-March, a restaurant owned by Wong was vandalized, and on March 16, Mr. Wong was assaulted by a group of triad members. Three men were arrested after the attack.61  On May 13, Wong issued a statement announcing that he was taking a leave from his show. In his statement, Wong related his departure to fatigue: “I am tired physically and mentally. I need a rest. I am sorry, but I can’t talk on the air for a period of time.”62  The week before he announced his departure, Wong also linked the attacks against him to his political views his public criticism of the government.63

According to Hong Kong-based Spike magazine, the Hong Kong police obtained an account of the threats against Wong and Cheng. The police did question the businessman who made the threatening phone calls, but did not arrest him. “Police did go to interview him,” an informed observer told Human Rights Watch. “He was well-prepared. He had his lawyers with him, and he refused to answer any questions.”64

As of this writing, neither Cheng nor Wong is scheduled to return to Commercial Radio after the elections. Although the reasons for the hosts’ departure are in dispute, Commercial Radio’s failure to retain its two highest-rated hosts sends a troubling message. According to one Hong Kong analyst, “There is now a fear that Commercial Radio is now playing along with what Beijing wants… the net effect is that they have been gotten rid of.”65

Although concerns over self-censorship in Hong Kong have persisted since the handover, the threats against Wong and Cheng represent a new phenomenon in Hong Kong. According to one Hong Kong human rights activist:

This is unprecedented: triads killing other triads, this has a long history. But there is no other case of a public figure being forced to give up his public post because of threats from triads.66

The threats against Wong and Cheng have increased concerns among journalists that they have to watch what they say. According to one journalist, “you have to at least think about it… you do the calculus: will this get me in trouble?”67

Another journalist expressed frustration over the constant back and forth with editors anxious not to cross the line: “If you write something, you are told to tone it down. It’s always a negotiation.”68

The process at most newspapers is a subtle one, rather than one of open censorship. “Some managers have been told, you should be careful (about what you publish). But they would not tell you what to write.”69

Despite the restrictions, however, journalists continue to file their stories, and report on the most sensitive issues in Hong Kong and in China. Many take a pragmatic approach: “If you realize that there is nothing that you can do, then you leave,” said one journalist. “Otherwise, if you can still have an impact, then you might stay… Some people have quit, but they don’t want to make a fuss because they still want to work in this industry.”70

The pressure is subtle, and thus in some ways even more difficult to fight. “It’s difficult to think of a solution,” said Mak Yin-ting, a former head of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “We feel helpless.”71

Although the high-profile cases of Albert Cheng and Wong Yuk-man have been the subject of the most attention, other journalists have also been warned to be careful about what they write.72 And others have paid a price for their work, albeit a much smaller one than Cheng and Wong. One journalist told Human Rights Watch that he was transferred out of the news bureau after making comments critical of the government’s Article 23 proposals. “They said that they wanted to give me more thorough training,” he said, which he viewed as unusual for a journalist with his level of seniority and experience. 

This journalist was eventually transferred back to his old position, but not until after he wrote a letter to his supervisor, demanding an answer. “I asked why, but no one could answer me. My direct supervisor could only tell me what he was told: you are transferred.”73

For some journalists, there is no need to self-censor after the threats against the talk show hosts. “Most journalists say that it’s not going to happen to me, because I’m not critical of Beijing,” one journalist said.74  

The Allen Lee case

After Cheng stepped down, Allen Lee Peng-fei, a former member of Legislative Council and a member of the Hong Kong delegation to the National People’s Congress, agreed to take over the show until Cheng’s return. Lee had taken over for Cheng before; when Cheng took time off after receiving a warning from the government in 2003, Lee filled in.

Unlike Albert Cheng, whose checkered past is part of his raffish on-air charm, Lee, 64, has long been a part of Hong Kong’s elite. “You can’t get more establishment than Allen Lee,”75 a friend of his joked. A businessman and a twenty-year veteran of the Legislative Council, Lee, a former chairman of the Liberal Party, has nearly three decades in public life in Hong Kong under his belt. Before he resigned his seat in May, Lee was a member of the Hong Kong delegation to the National People’s Congress.

Lee took over for Albert Cheng as the on-air host of “Teacup in a Storm” in early May. Three weeks later, on May 19, Lee resigned.

The first public sign of pressure on Lee was an editorial in the May 15th Hong Kong edition of the China Daily. The editorial attacked Lee for his on-air criticism of the Article 158 interpretation issued by Beijing in April, and implied that his commentary was improper, given his seat in the NPC. “As an NPC deputy, he should not criticize the NPC and show no respect for (its) interpretations,” the editorial declared.76 Once again, the implication was made that criticism of the government, no matter how well meaning or mildly phrased, was improper.

The immediate impetus for Lee’s resignation was a phone call that Lee received from a former senior mainland Chinese official, Cheng Shousan. According to Lee,

On May 18 at 10.30pm, I received a phone call from a man named Chen. He said that he is now retired and is a guest professor. He said that we had not met for many years, and that he was now in Hong Kong, and that he had some things that he wanted to discuss with me.

He said that many years ago, he was at a fashion show, and that my daughter was the MC, and that I and my wife were also there. He said he sat next to my wife, and he said that my wife – I thanked him so much – was very virtuous, and that my daughter was very beautiful, and that she spoke English very well, and that she left quite a deep impression on him.

After I heard him say this, I asked him whether he had called me to talk about my wife or my daughter! I said it was getting late, and that the next day in the morning I had to host the “Teacup in a Storm” program, and so what was it that he wanted to say to me? He said that he knew that I was the host of the show, and so therefore he had come to Hong Kong, hoping to be able to speak to me.77

To Lee, the import of Cheng’s words was quite clear: that Lee should listen to what Cheng – and, presumably, members of the central government in Beijing – had to say to him about how to conduct himself as the host of “Teacup.” If he did not, Cheng implied, his wife and daughter were not unknown to those who would be displeased by Lee’s choice.

Although Lee’s decision to step down was initially linked only to the phone call from Cheng and the China Daily editorial, Lee later made clear that Cheng’s phone call was by no means an isolated incident. Rather, Cheng’s phone call was the latest in a string of calls, visits, and conversations with mainland officials. Cheng’s call was not the first attempt to pressure Lee; instead, it was the final straw.

Lee testified before his former colleagues in the Legislative Council at a special session on freedom of expression on May 27. In his opening statement, Lee made reference to the repeated threats, interventions, and warnings that he received from various mainland officials.

Lee also made clear that, for whatever reason, there were things that he could not say.

There are some things I cannot speak about, but also I know that inside this hall, one absolutely cannot boast. A few relevant Chinese leaders at different levels have spoken to me. Members of this council, please understand, I have promises to keep, and so I will not speak about them.78

One of the earliest interventions came after Lee took over as the host of “Teacup” in 2003:

Commercial Radio’s Mr. Cai Dongwu and Mr. Xie Wendao approached me and asked me to take over as the host of “Teacup in a Storm.” They told me that Albert Cheng left at the beginning of April, and they hoped that I could take over until the end of September. My answer at the time was that I needed to think it over. Actually, I started thinking about early August last year (2003), when the members of the Hong Kong delegation to the National People’s Congress went on a visit to Inner Mongolia. While there, I was reprimanded by a Chinese official. Although we met alone and talked in detail, the conversation is still very fresh in my memory.79

Some officials linked Lee’s post at the NPC to the radio show, and implied that the two positions were somehow in conflict:

In March of this year, at the opening of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, I went to a restaurant with a bunch of old Beijing friends that I have known for years. They said that were some people who had opinions about me being both a member of the NPC and a radio host…  There were still many who believed that I was too critical during my time as a radio host, especially when I was hosting “Teacup in a Storm.” I responded sincerely to my friends, saying that the Chinese leadership and they themselves needed to know my views on the democratic system. I believe that …Hong Kong should move toward a democratic system.80

Because of the repeated comments by mainland officials, Lee felt obliged to check with Wu Bangguo, the chairman of the NPC, before agreeing to come back to “Tempest,” despite his prior work for the show. Lee sent word to Wu through an intermediary that Lee had been asked to step in once again as the host of “Teacup.” Lee wanted Wu’s view on whether there was any conflict between his NPC post and the radio program. Word came back to Lee that there was no conflict, and so he agreed to come back to the show.

Despite this prior approval, Lee was still approached by senior officials wanting to talk to him about the show. One interlocutor – Lee refers to him as an “old friend” – wanted Lee to meet once again with mainland officials to discuss the show. Aware of his friend’s very senior standing, and doubtless aware that such influential friends cannot be put off lightly, Lee nonetheless refused.

The article in China Daily presumably appeared soon after that conversation, and Cheng’s phone call came days after that. Cheng’s later protestations to the contrary, Lee said that he did not know Cheng, and did not consider him a friend:

Actually, I have no impression of this Mr. Chen, and also cannot rely on what he said over the phone about being a former central government official; he of course knew I am the host of “Teacup in a Storm.” But why did he want to meet with me?81  

Beyond Cheng’s questions about Lee’s wife and daughter, Lee took Cheng’s phone call as a signal that, despite his refusal, registered with his “friend,” to meet with government officials to discuss “Teacup,” nonetheless he would still be subject to a stream of visitors, requests for meetings, and innuendo-laden telephone calls.

Would there still be people that wanted to meet with me? After we spoke on the phone, I thought about it: besides my close friend from the mainland, there would be many other people who would want to talk to me, and how many times could I refuse? And could I refuse to meet with a Chinese official at any level or any Chinese leader who wanted to meet with me? If they wanted to meet with me, it was definitely because they had something they wanted to say to me about how I was hosting the show. I have already had this kind of experience before. In July of last year, when I stepped in as host of “Teacup,” many people told me that they were dissatisfied, and even asked me to change the style of the show.82

Rather than subject himself to continued pressure over the show, Lee decided, within hours of Cheng’s late-night call, to resign from the show:

On this night, after many hours of reflection, I decided that I did not want to speak to anyone about things related to hosting the show. I knew that it was impossible for me to change my style of doing the show. If I changed, than that would be letting down Commercial Radio and the listeners of Hong Kong. And so I decided to step down as the host of “Teacup.” This was my main reason for doing so. Of course, I have other principles and other reasons that I considered, but those were all secondary.83

On May 31, Cheng Shousan stepped forward and identified himself as the man who had called Lee on the night of the 18th. Until he publicly identified himself, his name was unknown, even to Lee, who heard Cheng identify himself as “Chen.” Cheng largely confirmed Lee’s account of the phone call, but denied that he had any intent to pressure Lee.

[46] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[47] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[48] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[49] Hannah Beech, “Making Waves,” Time Asia, July 14, 2003.

[50] Martin Regg Cohn, “Loss of free speech feared as radio show host silenced,” Toronto Star, June 30, 2003.

[51] Rebecca Buckman, “Hong Kong is accused of gagging broadcaster,” Asian Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2003. Cheng stepped down from his radio show for several weeks after the government warning.

[52] Hannah Beech, “Making Waves,” Time Asia. July 14, 2003.

[53] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[54] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[55] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[56] “Revealed: How the radio hosts were intimidated,” Spike magazine, July 9-15, 2004.

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[58] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[59] Stella Lee, “Albert Cheng says death threats may force him off air,” South China Morning Post, April 2, 2004. Red paint is often used as a symbol of blood by Hong Kong triads.

[60] Michael Ng, “Attack forces job rethink,” Hong Kong Standard, April 2, 2004.

[61] Keith Bradsher, “Radio host quits job and flees Hong Kong,” New York Times, May 15, 2004.

[62] Reuters, “Another Hong Kong critic of Beijing goes off air,” May 13, 2004.

[63] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[64] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[65] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004

[66] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[70] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview with Mak Yin-ting, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[72] Human Rights Watch interviews, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[74] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[75] Human Rights Watch interview, Hong Kong, July 2004.

[76] Louis Chan, “Allen Lee’s remarks belie his role in NPC,” China Daily, May 15, 2004. The newspaper returned to the subject just days later, on May 19, again arguing that it was improper for Lee to criticize a body of which eh was a member. Louis Chan, “Sensational Remarks no good for HK,” China Daily, May 19, 2004. In his testimony before Legislative Council at the end of the month, Lee stated that he had been informed that the China Daily articles did not in fact represent Beijing’s view. Allen Lee Legislative Council testimony, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[77] Allen Lee, testimony before the Legislative Council, May 27, 2004; copy on file with Human Rights Watch. Translation by Human Rights Watch.

[78] Allen Lee, testimony before the Legislative Council, 27 May 2004; copy on file with Human Rights Watch. Translation by Human Rights Watch.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid.

[82] Ibid.

[83] Ibid.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004