Financial Times: Dismissal sparks fears on HK press freedom

April 30, 2002,

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's premier English-language newspaper, has dismissed its leading China expert, Jasper Becker, in a decision which raises questions about press freedom in the former British colony. Mr Becker said he had been dismissed yesterday after complaints he had made about the paper's coverage of contentious political issues in the mainland. Mr Becker's removal follows the resignation in 2000 of the paper's former China editor, Willy Wo Lap Lam, who also complained of censorship in the SCMP's China coverage. The SCMP is owned by Robert Kuok, a Malaysian-Chinese tycoon, who in a letter to his own paper had attacked Mr Lam's coverage of Hong Kong and China.

The SCMP is an important source of news about China's rapidly growing economy and opaque political system. Mr Becker, in some respects, had become symbolic of the paper's independence for his strident critiques of the Chinese political system and its impact on ordinary citizens. He is the author of a number of books that had angered the Chinese authorities, including Hungry Ghosts, about China's famine in the late 1950s in which tens of millions of perished.

A spokeswoman for the paper denied Mr Becker had been dismissed for political reasons, saying he had been removed because of his refusal to work under the paper's China editor, Wang Xiangwei. But Mr Becker said his worries about the paper's coverage of China had come to a head in recent weeks when a series of stories had been "blocked, spiked and ignored".

"The paper was making it impossible to do our normal reporting about China," Mr Becker said. He said reporting of stories about Tibet and Falun Gong, the outlawed spiritual movement, had been vetoed by Mr Wang.

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