South China Morning Post is one of the world's most profitable dailies
The first China-born editor of Hong Kong's flagship English-language paper admits he made a "bad call" in cutting coverage of a mainland dissident's death, but denies he is a stooge for Beijing.
The South China Morning Post's editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei has himself been making the news, accused of muzzling the newspaper to appease Chinese authorities, amid a broader fear that Hong Kong is losing cherished freedoms.
Such concerns fuelled Hong Kong's biggest protest in eight years on Sunday just after a weekend visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, to mark the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover and the inauguration of its new leader.
Angry journalists at the 109-year-old South China Morning Post, one of the world's most profitable dailies, allege a steady erosion of their freedom to report on China since Wang took over the editorship in February.
He began his career at the state-run China Daily, Beijing's leading English-language paper, and sits on a mainland political advisory body. He has even been forced to deny that he is a secret Communist Party member.
"If I had a hidden agenda, it would have come out a long time ago," Wang, 47, told AFP in an interview.
Internal bickering at the SCMP exploded into the open after the death last month of Li Wangyang, a Tiananmen Square democracy activist who was found hanged in his mainland hospital ward.
The official verdict was suicide. But his family suspect foul play given that Li was blind, nearly deaf and barely able to walk. His death received prominent coverage across Hong Kong's Chinese-language media.
But while the SCMP carried the Li story at length in the first edition of the June 7 newspaper, Wang replaced it for the second edition and reduced the original story to a 101-word brief.
"It was never my intention to downplay that story and try to exercise self-censorship," Wang said in the interview, adding he was "shocked at the scale of the reaction to all of this".
"I have to make a lot of decisions, and looking back on this one, it was a bad call."
The Post eventually went harder on the Li story, with front-page splashes, editorials and two columns by Wang, who ran a statement in the paper saying he had waited "until more facts and details... could be established".
But staff questioned why the story ran at all on June 7 if the facts were in doubt, and concerns about Wang's editorship are gaining wider traction after an SCMP sub-editor challenged him in a terse email exchange that went public.
In an opinion piece last week, the Wall Street Journal said Wang had "built a reputation as the newspaper's in-house censor since he became China editor in 2000" and encouraged stories that were favourable towards Beijing.
"I totally reject the accusations made against me by the Wall Street Journal Asia saying I act as a censor, that is totally out of line and totally biased," Wang told AFP.
"Over the past 16 years I have organised and written many important and politically sensitive stories, and we have never wavered from those. For all those people who have some concerns, read our paper and judge for yourself."
Wang joined the Post in 1996 as a business reporter covering China, after stints at the BBC World Service's Chinese unit in London and at another newspaper in Hong Kong.
He was appointed editor-in-chief this year, succeeding a long line of foreign editors, by a management team working under Robert Kuok, a Malaysian tycoon who has businesses in China and a controlling stake in the paper.
Staff at the Post said that Wang's mainland connections helped ensure that his columns were a must-read in the newspaper's China coverage, which still produces stories critical of Beijing.
But they say reporters are frustrated at having stories rejected and being told whom they should and should not interview, while experienced foreign correspondents have seen their contracts lapse under Wang.
"The whole organisation feels like it is slowly turning into the China Daily," one senior SCMP journalist told AFP. "The newspaper is pulling its punches."
In a statement, the International Federation of Journalists flagged up the "worrying" move by the SCMP to discontinue the contracts of a number of its most experienced foreign journalists.
They include Paul Mooney, who wrote many of the SCMP's award-winning articles on Chinese human-rights issues in recent years. The newspaper no longer has any foreigners reporting from mainland China.
The new chief executive of Hong Kong's semi-autonomous government, Leung Chun-ying, pledged in his inauguration speech on Sunday to "protect press freedom and defend the impartiality of the media".
But results of a survey released last week by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) illustrated the widely held view that press freedom is declining in the territory 15 years after it reverted to China from Britain.
A total of 87 percent of respondents said that press freedom is worse now than at the beginning of outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang's term in 2005, citing self-censorship, restricted information and interference from Beijing.
"You see a clear trend of press freedom shrinking," HKJA chairwoman Mak Yingting told AFP, adding the SCMP row "is clearly a case of self-censorship".
"I hope journalists and newspaper management can adhere to professionalism. If they don't, their credibility is at stake," she said. "If credibility is compromised, you are nothing."