Managers at Hong Kong’s i-Cable TV network announced they would be firing at least 40 journalists, editors, and production crew at the morning editorial meeting on Tuesday.
Those targeted received phone calls or letters informing them of the decision and were forced by security guards to leave the premises immediately, prompting remaining staff members to question why some of the network’s top investigative news teams had been axed.
Journalists working in news, finance, and sports, as well as camera crew and video editing staff were fired, including news anchors, reporters, and three senior executives in the camera crew department.
Angry staff surrounded top managers demanding to know the criteria for the sackings, which many say targeted the network’s best journalistic talent, rather than its opposite.
In video clips of those conversations posted to social media, managers replied that the firings were simply to “save resources.”
i-Cable said in a written statement on Tuesday: “The Group needed to conduct a comprehensive review and adjustment of personnel and leadership structure across all departments.”
It said around 100 employees were affected by the restructuring, “including transfers to different departments and resignations.”
“The Group will provide appropriate compensation to affected departing employees in accordance with labor laws,” the statement said.
Politically sensitive reports
The award-winning investigative journalism show News Lancet, which has aired a number of reports likely to be considered politically sensitive by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing, was among the teams hardest hit by the sackings.
A former i-Cable employee told RFA that the loss of the show would be “a bullet to the head” of newsgathering operations at the network.
Wong Lai-ping, deputy chief of the station’s China News team, which reported on the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and has covered human rights abuses under the CCP, told Reuters she was among those laid off.
The agency said the heads of the China News, Hong Kong General News, Finance News, and Editing desks at i-Cable had also resigned.
News Lancet and the China News teams last year joined forces to produce a special program marking the 30th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre, but the program was shelved by managers, who had said there was too much “bloodstained history” in it.
News Lancet also ran an investigative feature on the manipulation of public opinion, which some in the industry believe could have catalyzed the firings at i-Cable.
In a post to its Facebook page, those left on the China News team vowed to “stand fast and do our journalistic best in the days we have left [here].”
The Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) said it was “highly concerned” about the firings, “especially when the media has been under political pressure lately.”
We hope that the senior management of the media will rise to the challenge and not let down the journalists who are committed to do a good job.
“The layoffs [have] seriously affected the quality of news editing and reporting,” it said.
“The fact that the entire team of News Lancet was fired, after they covered stories critical of the police and the authorities over the past year, leads one to believe that this has been done not in the name of cutting costs, but with the real aim of reducing or eliminating the reporting of sensitive news,” the HKJA said.
Taking governments to task
i-Cable China News reporters also had a reputation for taking local governments to task in mainland China over corruption and human rights abuses, as well as for in-depth documentaries about China under the CCP since 1949.
But sweeping personnel changes at the highest level of i-Cable three years ago led to concerns that the network has been taking orders directly from Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, amid multiple unconfirmed reports of editorial interference from management.
A senior reporter from the China team, who declined to be named, said the firings had been carried out amid a total lack of transparency, and wondered who would now be hired as replacements.
More than 220 news department employees sent an open letter to i-Cable Chairman Chiu Tat-cheong, saying the dismissals were an “irreparable loss” for the network.
Hong Kong-based Agence France-Presse journalist Xinqi Su tweeted of the sackings that they were “a long nail driven into the shackles [of] TV news in HK.”
“Between June and September, 5 TV news seniors deemed in the trade professionally mediocre but politically reliable were parachuted to head NOW TV News (1) and iCable News (4),” Su wrote.
Reported by Gigi Lee and Chan Chun Ho for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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