How the Hong Kong Media "Awarded" the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiao-bo

Chong Hiu-yeung - General Secretary, Hong Kong Journal Association

[中文][Jan 2011 - The Journalist] A Norwegian reporter called the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) the day before the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize Award. He asked some questions about Dr. Liu Xiao Bo. Although that reporter claimed that he did not know the outcome, the phone call implied that Dr. Liu might have a chance of winning this prestigious award this year.

The HKJA uploaded the information, ‘a call from Norwegian reporter’ to Facebook. Only a Ming Pao reporter called the HKJA to ask for more details. It seemed that most reporters did not believe that Dr. Liu would get the prize.

According to an international bookmaker, Dr. Liu was the hottest candidate. However there was only one example of jailed individuals being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and, with China becoming more and more powerful in the world, many reporters did not dare to have this big expectation. So they only expressed their wishes through Facebook.

On Oct 8 not a single newspaper published the news relating to the Nobel Peace Prize on their front pages. Even Apple Daily and Ming Pao reported it in their foreign news pages. However in some media newsrooms, editors had already prepared and planned for the possibility that Dr. Liu might win.

On Oct 8 at about 5 pm, many reporters watched the live broadcast of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement in their newsrooms. The moment finally came, the representative of the Norwegian Peace Committee uttered Lu… Xia… Bo… in heavily accented Norwegian English. now TV carried the Chinese subtitles simultaneously, the Cable News reporter probably did not fully understand the Norwegian's English so the Chinese subtitle lagged behind by seconds.

Cheers for Liu Xiao-bo

‘Wa’!, ‘Yeah!’, ‘Yes!’, reporters shouted continuously in the newsrooms of South China Morning Post, Apple Daily, Cable TV, Hong Kong Economic Times and Commercial Radio, etc. Clapping, cheering and other emotional outbursts erupted, even the audience of Cable TV could hear the noise! Because Cable TV news reporter Bruce Lui was talking with Liu Xia in the newsroom by long distance phone call. Their dialogue was broadcast live.

Reporters shared the information in their Facebook, and to express their emotions. A China news reporter from the Cable TV told the HKJA, ‘suppressed sulking for a long time finally erupted, all reporters were clapping hands!’ General news reporters from the Hong Kong Economic Times ordered more dishes for dinner that night in celebration.

Of a sudden this ‘unexpected’ news tremendously increased the workload for reporters. The deputy chief editor of Apple Daily, Lam Man Chung who was having his day off was summoned back to the newsroom immediately.

The moment of emotion and the challenge for the news media was to determine how this news should be reported. Dr. Liu is the first Chinese citizen in Mainland China to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the news value was above any political suspicion. So it became the lead story for the main newscast at ATV and TVB. However, for TVB's 24-hour news channel, the news of Dr. Liu became the third story about three hours later.

Fourteen newspapers, if Frontpage Advertisement is not included, about 57 percent of local newspapers, including Apple Daily, Hong Kong Daily News, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Ming Pao, Sing Pao, Sing Tao, Hong Kong Standard and Sun led with the story (see table). However, the angle they used made a huge difference.

Headlines Positive

The heads of these eight newspapers can be divided into three categories: Apple Daily and South China Morning Post belonging to the first category, their headlines being positive about Dr. Liu and not mentioning criticisms of the Chinese authorities.

Ming Pao, Sing Tao, Hong Kong Economic Journal, Sing Pao and The Sun fall into a second category. Their headlines were relatively “objective”. Dr. Liu’s accomplishment or sympathy for him was reported, along with the reaction from Beijing.

Headline Daily and Hong Kong Daily News belong to the third category. Only the views of Beijing were presented. The criticism of ‘obscenity’ was mentioned, but not the human rights.

Oriental Daily News, Hong Kong Economic Times, Hong Kong Commercial Daily, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao did not use the story as their page one lead. The lead for Oriental Daily News was businessman Yip Kim Por being jailed. The Hong Kong Economic Times and Hong Kong Commercial Daily led with the latest stock market news.

Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao played down this news all together. Both newspapers carried a news item of about 600 words, headed “Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Award to Liu Xiao Bo is an Obscenity” without any mention of the significance and meaning of the first Chinese citizen getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Only the comment from the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was reported.

As is the practice, Oriental Daily News and its subsidiary The Sun do not carry the same cover story the same day. As The Sun used Dr. Liu in its banner headlines, Oriental Daily News had to use something else. There was no vigorous discussion about what news to play up. However, why did The Sun, the junior partner, have priority over the Dr Liu story that day? The answer is not known.

The discussion at the editorial meeting of Ta Kung Pao was vigorous. Ta Kung Pao has strong ties with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and they must be in line with Beijing’s thinking. However, senior management members did not agree with Beijing’s policy; someone even said that Beijing was asking for trouble because the 11 years jail term for Dr. Liu was too harsh and had provoked international reaction. Accordingly, Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying threatening the Norwegian Nobel Committee was another silly mistake, and ensured Dr. Liu got the prize.

A similar controversy erupted at Hong Kong Economic Times. Their reporters were happy for Dr. Liu. However, among the five top news stories published the next day, the headlines of four stories were, “Liu Xiao Bo Awarded Nobel Peace Prize, Beijing objects, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Criticize it as Obscenity, Norwegian Ambassador is Summoned Immediately”, “China surpasses Japan and comes closer to the US is the Reason for Awarding Liu Xiao-bo”, “Nobel Peace Prize is Criticized as a Political Tool” and “Contained by Western Countries, Beijing’s Strategy is Harmony but Not Sameness’.

The meaning of Dr. Liu winning the Nobel Peace Prize was interpreted as a signal that ‘western countries do not wish China to become a strong state’ with which some HKET reporters disagreed. A reporter criticized on Facebook that the senior management often emphasized objectivity, but they only mentioned Beijing’s reaction, Liu Xiao Bo and other dissidents who are either under house arrest or in prison were not mentioned. They did not interview scholars to analyse the impact on the democracy development in China. That reporter grumbled on Facebook, “If these weird articles need to be written again in the future, they should be played down or cut down for the good of environmental protection.’

There are obvious differences between news presentation and a reporter’s sentiment. This is inevitable when important issues are involved, such as the legislation of the article 23 of the Basic Law. Fortunately, there are numerous news media in this city, so it is easy to get the information from foreign media and few news media dare to go too far, so Hong Kong people still can hear different voices.

Otherwise, Hong Kong will only become just another city in China.