Macau’s Portuguese-language journalists are bracing themselves for restrictions on press freedom following recent events at the gambling hub’s public broadcaster.
Some journalists have resigned in recent weeks, while others are worried about increasing self-censorship as the former Portuguese colony’s media scene becomes more pro-Beijing.
The uncertainty was sparked after about 25 journalists and producers at public broadcaster Teledifusao de Macau (TdM) were called to a meeting on March 10 where João Francisco Pinto, who manages its Portuguese-language channels, read out a nine-point directive.
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No written document was handed out, but many took notes of new editorial rules spelling out that the broadcaster would strive to promote “patriotism, respect and love” for China and the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR).
A TdM journalist, who asked not to be named, sent the Post a summary of the directive, saying it was drawn up by the broadcaster’s executive committee and meant to redefine the newsroom’s editorial policy.
It made clear that TdM journalists were expected to avoid disseminating “information or opinions contrary to the politics of the central government” as well as measures adopted by Macau.
It also said TdM supported the principle of Hong Kong being led by patriots, which in recent weeks has led to wide-ranging reforms and changes to the city’s election system.
Pinto made clear there would be professional consequences for those who did not comply, according to the journalist who sent the Post the summary.
The broadcaster runs six television stations and two radio stations providing content mainly in Macau’s official languages, Portuguese and Chinese. The Portuguese section also puts out some content in English, Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia.
On March 15, several journalists met the executive committee to seek clarification, only to end up feeling they were in “a grey zone”, unsure whether they were expected to self-censor, according to a second staff member.
This journalist said TdM’s daily coverage had already been affected, with events previously considered of little news value – such as a Beijing press conference announcing plans for the Chinese Communist Party’s centenary – now being broadcast live on the Portuguese-language channel.
Although the broadcaster issued several statements emphasising that its editorial policy had not changed, seven Portuguese-language journalists resigned. With no sign of a newsroom-wide meeting to discuss the directive, many fear management is deliberately creating fertile ground for self-censorship.
“I don’t want to end up being part of a propaganda machine,” said the journalist who shared the summary of the directive with the Post.
In Macau, which has a population of under 700,000, TdM’s Portuguese journalists have been known to operate with more freedom than their Chinese-language colleagues, asking tough questions at press conferences.
The journalist said the stark differences between the Portuguese and Chinese-language services were clear during the 2019 anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Journalists from TdM’s Portuguese service went on frequent reporting trips to cover the unrest in Hong Kong, but journalists from the Chinese service were not allowed to do so.
It was also common for journalists from the Chinese service to move on to better-paid jobs as public relations officials for the Macau government, the journalist added.
Commenting on the controversy on March 23, Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat-seng said the city’s government was neither restricting press freedom nor instructing TdM to censor its journalists.
The broadcaster did not respond to an email request for comment.
Like Hong Kong, Macau has a Basic Law, or mini-constitution, that protects press freedom.
But Macau-based lawyer Jorge Menezes said that unlike in Hong Kong, the city’s Chinese-language media had long been subject to censorship.
“Every time there are incidents that question China or the Macau SAR, anything with political connotations, either it’s completely ignored or appears in one small corner,” he said.
Sulu Sou, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Macau’s legislative assembly, said because of widespread self-censorship in the city’s Chinese media, Portuguese-language articles were frequently translated into Chinese and circulated on social media.
He was part of a small crowd that demonstrated in front of TdM’s headquarters on April 4, holding signs defending press freedom. Sou said he sent two letters to TdM seeking clarification regarding the directives, but has yet to receive a reply.
Scott Chiang, an aide to pro-democracy Macau lawmaker Ng Kuok-cheong, found the explicit nature of the order unusual.
“There isn’t an adversarial press in Macau as there is Hong Kong,” he said. “This place is so small that everyone knows everyone, so societal pressures to conform are much stronger.”
Lawmaker Lam Iok-fong, director of the Centre for Macau Studies at the University of Macau, said as long as TdM does not change its code of ethics in writing, journalists should feel secure.
She added that the dispute was likely caused by the executive committee, made up mostly of Chinese administrators, failing to tailor its message to the sensibilities of foreign journalists in the Portuguese section.
“The management tried to convey a message that treated them like Chinese citizens, which is not appropriate,” she said.
Lawyer Menezes, who used to work for the Macau government, suspected that Beijing, which has a liaison office in Macau, was behind the directive.
“Everything indicates that the order came from the mainland, from … the type of language used to the poor manner in which it was executed, this is typical of the mainland not understanding the autonomy of the SARs,” he said.
In Lisbon, ‘no need to stir drama’
Reports of the TdM controversy have generated heated political discussion in Portugal, which handed its former colony back to China in 1999, two years after the British returned Hong Kong.
Hours after Macau leader Ho’s remarks on the matter last month, Portugal’s minister of foreign affairs Augusto Santos da Silva said he expected China to respect the city’s Basic Law.
On March 29, 150 Portuguese journalists signed an open letter calling for a parliamentary committee to create a working group to monitor Beijing’s upholding of the Portugal-China Joint Declaration of 1987, which states that press freedom is one of the rights that citizens of Macau will enjoy under Chinese rule.
While Santos da Silva’s remarks were much more restrained than his British counterpart Dominic Raab’s recent statements on Hong Kong, lawyer Menezes noted it was the first time since the handover that Portugal “gave a warning of this gravity to China”.
On April 1, Chinese state media outlet Guancha said Portuguese reactions to the TdM issue, such as the open letter and Santos da Silva’s comments, were “all too familiar tactics, to the point of making someone think this is the United Kingdom”.
But unlike the British parliament, which has been unified in condemning Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong last June or the sweeping electoral reforms under way in the city, Portuguese lawmakers are not about to increase efforts to monitor China’s handling of Macau.
On April 6, a parliamentary commission on foreign affairs said it concluded after a two-hour debate that “stirring drama around this question does not serve Macau, the Portuguese in Macau, or relations between Portugal and the PRC”. The Portuguese journalists’ demand for a working group was ignored.
Francisco Seixas da Costa, a retired diplomat in Lisbon, told the Post Portugal must live with the fact that China’s concept of a patriotic press is not in line with press freedom as in most Western democracies.
Two TdM journalists told the Post they were disappointed with the way the parliamentary commission appeared to brush aside real concerns over press freedom in Macau.
“They treated it like a non-issue, as if people just quit for no reason,” said one of them. “It showed a certain lack of courage, sensibility and understanding. I think they let down the Portuguese in Macau.”