Hong Kong—In the first week of April, three media—the historic Asia Television (ATV), Next Media’s FACE magazine, and the newspaper The Sun—successively bid farewell to the local media market.
The recently released financial reports of media groups have also showed losses, highlighting the plight of the traditional media industry.
Commentators and senior media consultants believe the increasing alignment of Hong Kong’s media with that of mainland China is the prime cause of the loss of readers and viewers. They think media that defends the core values of Hong Kong people will become more and more popular, while media that acts as a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda and stabilizing tool will have no way out.
The Oriental Press Group issued a notice on March 29 announcing its board’s decision to suspend the publication of The Sun and its online website starting on April 1, due to Hong Kong’s recent deteriorating business climate.
The Sun and Oriental Daily News published notices of print suspension on their front pages on March 30, expressing the group’s apology and saying that it does not rule out the possibility of resuming printing when the business environment improves during a future economic upturn. However, there was no mention of the fate of the publication’s staff.
This is the second newspaper in paid circulation that has ceased publication in less than a year. Hong Kong Daily News closed in July last year. It was long known that the finances of the 17-year-old newspaper The Sun had run into problems.
The Oriental Press Group announced last October that it was working with an independent third party to negotiate a deal to sell a publication, but this February the news came that both sides had failed to reach a consensus, and the deal fell through.
Before the announcement of the Sun’s closure, the Oriental Press Group announced earlier in March that the free weekly publication Good News, which had always been bundled with The Sun every Friday, would cease being printed starting on March 11. It would also stop funding the operations of its two charities, Oriental Daily and The Sun Charitable Foundation, and immediately stop accepting donations.
The Oriental Press Group released its interim financial report last November. Its half-year loss amounted to HK$6.4 million (US$0.82 million), and its newspaper publishing profit declined by 85.5 percent.
FACE and ATV
Next Media’s magazine FACE has also bid farewell to its readers, with its last issue released on March 29 with “One Last Time” as its cover title.
FACE’s readership consisted mainly of young readers and secondary school students. Next Media issued an internal memo to its employees in February, stating that FACE would cease publication at the end of March.
In addition, nearly 60-year-old ATV went off air on April 1. It is widespread knowledge that ATV had been in debt, and its dispute with its employees with regards to owed remuneration has not yet been resolved.
Sin Chung-kai, who served as Chairman of the Legislative Council Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting for many years, emphasized that he was in favour of suspending the license of ATV.
However, he felt that the government did not do enough after the suspension; for instance, allowing Viu TV and Fantastic TV to take over, but not inviting other TV stations to bid.
With regards to Hong Kong TV not being able to get a free-to-air TV license, Sin said, “The Chief Executive stifled the entire media. It is a governance issue, and we can’t expect much from this government.”
TVB’s First Loss
Even the monopoly giant Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) is not in a good state.
TVB released its annual financial report for last year on March 23, indicating a loss of HK$ 4.3 million (US$0.55 million). Over the same period in 2014, its net earnings were HK$1.25 billion (US$160 million).
Last year was its first recorded loss in the 27 years since its public listing in 1988.
What Readers Want
Famous current affairs commentator Lai Chak-fun said that The Sun was founded to compete against Apple Daily, but over the years it proved to be unsuccessful, and only now is it being closed down.
He believes that more print media will close in the near future, partly due to economic reasons. Young people nowadays like to use their mobile phones to read online news, and reading habits have changed; many people do not buy newspapers.
The other reason, he said, is political: a lot of mainstream media content no longer attracts readers.
“With the political changes, more and more people are dissatisfied with the government, but the mainstream media has been used as a tool for maintaining stability, resulting in the decline in readership,” Lai said.
He used TVB television as an example. He has observed its recent content becoming more and more disconnected from Hong Kong’s reality. It has even bought a lot of mainland Chinese series and shows to broadcast.
Lai believes that even with ATV off the air, the monopoly giant TVB will not be watched by many.
Analysis: Funding Cut Off
Over the past year, a number of pro-communist media organisations have had financial difficulties or even closed down. Besides being caused by the market environment, it was also due to the cutting off of funds from the paymaster behind the scene. This has aroused much attention.
Taking ATV as an example, the mysterious mainland Chinese tycoon Wang Zheng successfully acquired a stake in ATV in 2010, becoming the largest shareholder.
Thereafter, ATV’s programs rapidly became more and more “communist.”
There are rumours that Wang is the nephew of former CCP leader Jiang Zemin. During the high-profile share take-over, Wang also attained funding from five state-owned enterprises including the Bank of Beijing.
Five years later, the funding chain to ATV broke down, possibly related to the weakening of the Jiang faction in the current political scene.
The 56-year-old Hong Kong Daily News, owned by affluent businessman Albert Yeung, closed down last July. Yeung is affiliated with former Chinese Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, a member of the Jiang faction.
Hong Kong Daily News acted as a propaganda tool of Jiang’s 610 Office, an extralegal organization created to persecute the spiritual practice Falun Gong. Daily News supported the CCP-backed Hong Kong Youth Care Association and smeared Falun Gong on its front page.
Lai Chak-fun believes that the closing down of pro-government media may be related to the collapsing political forces behind the relevant media.
There have been comments that controlling the media and public opinion has always been an important tool for the communist regime to brainwash the people. Especially during the period when Jiang was in power, the government spent tens of billions of dollars to buy overseas media through famous overseas businessmen in its “big propaganda” strategy.
For example, after former CCP Secretary of Chongqing Bo Xilai stepped down in 2012, The Washington Post disclosed that Bo made an annual payment of tens of millions of dollars into Singapore’s newspaper Lianhe Zaobao (via Ming Pao boss Tiong), and a section of the paper was being dedicated to feature Chongqing.
Since last year, in addition to Zhou Yongkang being put in jail, the Jiang faction has been very much weakened in Beijing’s political wrestling. The cutting off of funding to pro-communist media is related to the behind-the-scenes paymaster losing ground.
The Unfiltered Truth
In the midst of the decline of print media in Hong Kong, Epoch Times Chinese edition officially went on sale on newsstands on March 21.
Lai Chak-fun said that Epoch Times can rise in times of adversity, mainly due to the fact that it “reports stories that other media does not.”
He stressed that the media’s main function is to pass on the truth, but because of media’s political inclination and interests, even this most basic function was not being performed.
“They dare to censor the news; not to the extent of fabricating news, but it may later even dare to create fraud,” he said.
He believed that the media’s role is to get the message across, and it should “be giving updates on what the people feel urgently about, and reporting on what the public thinks.”
He said there is also the role of surveillance, “monitoring the government to monitor the elite, to uncover the truth.”
“At a slightly higher level of refinement, media can lead the trends and reform the society” Lai said.
Translated by Lixin. Edited by Sally Appert.