Holding Truth in Heart. Turning Pens to Swords Media Unions In Defence of Press Freedom

Holding Truth in Heart. Turning Pens to Swords
Media Unions In Defence of Press Freedom

With their lens and pens, the media relay to their readers all major stories in the society. But recently, the Hong Kong media got their turn in the limelight with the surfacing of a series of events that challenged the industry itself: the pulling of advertisement from AM730 by the corporations of Chinese capital, HKEJ’s alleged self-censorship on the writings of its columnists, the abrupt sacking of Lee Wai-ling by the Commercial Radio, and the assault against Kevin Lau of Mingpao, for instances. Many are worried as the “invisible hand” is looming large over press freedom in Hong Kong.
A trade union is usually set up by workers to protect their labour rights, to be on an equal footing with their employers. In this issue of the Solidarity Post, we interview Wong Chun-ho, member of the preparatory committee for the Mingpao Staff Association; as well as Choi Yuen-kwai, deputy chairperson of the Next Media Trade Union. Both are veteran media workers who have witnessed many social struggles in their various scales. As unionists, they have also taken part in labour campaigns in field of the media. When media workers form a trade union, it is not just a matter of protecting labour rights, but also that of defending press freedom and the professional ethics.

Founding of the Mingpao Staff Association prompted by the Change of the paper’s Editor-in-chief

Wong Chun-ho, member of the preparatory committee for the Mingpao Staff Association.
On the day of the interview (11 March), the Registry Trade Unions officially recognised the legal status of Mingpao Staff Association as trade union. Wong Chun-ho was happy with the news. He was in the preparatory committee and had been responsible for drafting the constitution as well as the methods of elections for the Association. Dreary as it might look, paper work of this kind was however imperative in the setting up of the union. Wong pointed out that Mingpao Staff Association was different from other trade unions. It was born not so much out of labour disputes but rather the call to defend the trade’s dignity.
In early January this year, Media Chinese International Ltd, parent company of Mingpao, told its staff members that a journalist, not quite familiar with Hong Kong, would be brought in from Malaysia to replace Kevin Lau C. T. as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. The new person was Chong Tien Siong who reported duties on 3 March. There was no thought of creating a trade union before this incident took place, Wong said with a sigh. In view of this change of editor, and putting together with the series of incidents that had occured in the media community, staff members could not help worrying that suppression might have finally come. Colleagues in Mingpao have always endorsed and been proud of the paper’s working principles of impartiality and objectivity. They hence were apprehensive whether the editorial policy of Mingpao and the prevailing press freedom in Hong Kong would soon be compromised.
How would the press community proceed hereafter? With this thought in mind, solicitous colleagues in the editorial department formed a Concern Group to actively follow up with the change of the editor-in-chief. In order to secure the legal status for longer term struggles, they also started to make preparation and draft constitution for setting up a trade union.

17 February 2014, the general meeting of staff announced that the forming of Mingpao Staff Association was in process.
(photo from facebook of the Mingpao Staff Concern Group)

The Long Journey to defend Editorial Independence will begin with the Setting up of a Trade Union

The Constitution of the Mingpao Staff Association reads,
“Endeavor to defend and promote freedoms of press and expression, strive for better working conditions, employees vow to adhere to the core values of Mingpao, that is, to uphold social justice and goodness. With Mingpao being a public tool, its employees will stand by their positions in playing the role of the fourth estate.”
By “longer term work”, Wong Chun-ho meant it to be fighting for a legal status that would allow the union-to-be to bargain with the management, fixing a mechanism for regular meetings so that staff members could monitor the newspaper’s management to ensure that the editorial policy would maintain its impartial and objective stance.
According to the Employment Ordinance, an employer cannot sack, punish or intimidate an employee for taking part in union organizing or in industrial actions. Otherwise, it is an act of discrimination against the trade union. Although the Trade Unions Ordinance in Hong Kong guarantees neither trade union’s right to collective bargaining nor employees’ right to return to work, it does provide the unions with a legal status which is indispensable for the Mingpao staff in their future fight for press freedom and editorial independence.
To Wong’s mind, defending press freedom is like fighting a battle. “We should not see (the series of media-related incidents) on separate counts. Once put together, you would able to see a picture. Something has gone wrong in the industry. Some people are taking sides; those who criticize the government are relocated. There seems to be a marshalling force behind scene. If we do not adhere to our principles now, if we do not stand our ground, freedom of press will perish.”

Mingpao staff in unity – braving against the rainstorm

Lui Ka-ming, current editorial director of Mingpao, has been well known for his anti- union stance. When he was the executive director for Mingpao’s North America operation, he was swift in suppressing the Toronto Mingpao Trade Union. To this, Wong Chun-ho noted with a smile, “Either you keep brooding over it and back off or you just go do it without being too much bothered.”
He said that staff representatives and members of the preparatory committee were psychologically prepared and were defiant. “As media workers, we would not consider too much about personal interest. If anyone wants to alter the editorial policy, none of us would stay silent”. To the employees of Mingpao, the assault against Kevin Lau, their friend and colleague, was a menace both to the media ecology and to the personal security of the journalists. And precisely because of that, the courage they have in standing by their principles is deemed more respectable.
In fact, ever since news was spread that the editor-in-chief would be replaced, the staff of Mingpao exemplified the paramount doctrine of unity by initiating many rounds of actions. They launched signature campaigns to demand an explanation from the management for the change of editor and a promise for the paper to uphold impartiality as the editorial policy. They also arranged to meet with the senior staff including Chong Tien Siong on his first day of work. At least a few dozens of staff members went to Chong’s office. They called for clarifications from him and from Cheung Kin-bor on their stance and their views on press freedom and on the operation of the media industry. Furthermore, colleagues were also mobilized to partake in events including standing-in-silence protests, rallies as well as the blue ribbon campaign, etc.  
Within the short span of about two months, staff members of Mingpao were striving amid all sorts of challenges. Wong Chun-ho was moved by their positive and timely reactions. “They spontaneously set up a face book page; and in front of their computers, everyone put up a sketchpad on which was written ‘Should rain come, shield it off with an Umbrella’ or ‘For Press Freedom’ etc. The ambiance in the office was very good. We were all of one mind, strongly united.”
The company and solidarity of fellow comrades are vital for any lengthy battle. After being recognised by the Registry of the Trade Unions, the Mingpao Staff Association proceeded to recruit members and form the board of directors. Elections were to fall on the same day of the inauguration of the Association in the month that followed. Wong Chun-ho jokingly said when HKJA launched the Blue Ribbon Campaign; the Mingpao staff turned themselves into the “Foxconn in Chai Wan” by working days till nights and vice versa to produce over 5,000 blue ribbons needed for the occasion. Some even mobilized their family members in the work. For a union, the journey to victory is necessarily a long one. It is not just about organizing fervent actions but also attending to ample amount of trivial work. We hope the Mingpao staff will continue to adhere to their professional principles and ethics, and defend press freedom at this precarious time of Hong Kong.
Choi Yuen-kwai 蔡元貴, deputy chairperson of the Next Media Trade Union
News broke out sometime ago that the Next Media Corporation would raise the salary of its employees by 3%, which was below the inflation rate. The union criticized the increment as “unbeatably low” in response. Just before the news went public, we had an interview with Choi Yuen-kwai, deputy chairperson of the Next Media Trade Union. Choi told us that the union was founded some 5 years ago, out of another dispute on salary cut.

Salary cut provoked labour dispute, prompting the inception of Next Media Trade Union

In February 2009, the Next Media announced a 3.5% salary cut. The decision was inconceivable as surplus had been recorded in the company following the 2008 financial tsunami. As a result, staff started to reflect on their rights and benefits. They decided to set up a trade union. At that time, members made some stickers and invited the legislative councilors to render their support. Choi Yuen-kwai remembered how Lee Cheuk-yan raised the sticker they gave him as he spoke in the Legislative Council on labour related issues. The Next Media Trade Union was subsequently founded on 11 September that same year to coincide with the union’s first general meeting. One month later, the Next Media agreed to rebate the salary cut.
Five years have passed. In face of the recent waves of events that targeted the media, the Next Media Trade Union has been able to respond quickly. Choi Yuen-kwai humbly took this as normal for a journalist. “It is very convenient and quick to just write a statement as a response,” he said.  Choi noted that after being informed the rate of salary increment, they wished to publicize our position, via facebook, and on the office’s democracy wall. They intended to encourage discussion among staff, rendering thereby more pressure for the management. The Union has also been aware of the recent internal shift of personnel in the company. The management has been a bit concerned about the Union and dare not conduct the layoff in large scale.  On the pretext of “reforming the page layout”, they dismissed some senior staff members in the editorial department and replaced them with some young recruits. This will certainly affect the quality of the work. The Union is keeping a close eye on the issue. Apart from matters of pay rise and staff layoff, the union is also concerning about staff’s rights and benefits in their daily life, the quality of the canteen, for instances. The Union will kee regular contacts with its members, and try to follow up with complaints which are received via emails, social media etc.  

First Trade Union in Print Media, Saving Rice Bowls with Active Participation

Like many corporate unions, the Next Media Trade Union has strived to meet with the management. “Since Cheung Ka-sing (executive CEO) took over, we never managed to make any appointment. Sometimes he is busy, sometimes he just drags on.” Many corporate unions share similar situations. Cheung Kai-ming was once the CEO of Walmart China and Walmart has been well known for its tough stance against trade unions. It remains unclear if Cheung also shares that same approach and position.
When asked about the challenges in organizing a trade union, Choi Yuen-kwai said the “The Hong Kongers culture” could be one that is hard to break: conservative, cynical and never unwilling to take initiative in the striving. He shared with us a recent incident which had made him think.  When the Union urged staff members to cosign a statement to exert pressure on the management, some team leaders advised their team members against it, adding that “unionists are trouble makers”. The whole team of staff would then back off.
Choi lamented that it might be understandable if a boss is selfish, considering only his own profit and nothing else. However, employees nowadays are afraid of being revenged, and they concern only about their own rice bowls. The problem then will be, the more one backs off, the more one will lose.
Choi pointed out that, as the first trade union in the print media, the Next Media Trade Union is also striving to save the rice bowls. It is the union’s choice of a more proactive approach that makes the difference, for the saying goes “one has to fight for one’s own benefits”. The pleasure in this union work is being able to strive with a group of like-minded board members for common goals. In 2012, Shing Kai-chung, former photo journalist of Apple Daily, was accused of assaulting a security guard while covering news in the government headquarters. He was charged but was found not guilty. Last year, the Secretary of Justice appealed against the court’s decision. During the appeal, the Union expressed its support to Shing by arriving at the court with a banner every morning at 8H30. Shing was finally acquitted. “You made the efforts and get the result you desire for.” For Choi, it was an experience that does not easily come by in everyday life.
Choi said organizing a union is nothing extraordinary. But then when a union exists, the company will have to pay heed to it for the sake of the corporate image.  They would also avoid doing anything too extreme. This is the meaning for a union to exist.

5 years insistence on the road of unions with the courage of fighting for democracy

Five years is not long for the development of a trade union. Neither does it denote a long part of a person’s life journey. Choi thinks that his five years working with the union has nurtured in him a conditioned reflex to struggle. “I am used to it. When I strive, I do not think about the consequences. It is just like joining the rally on 1 July every year”. To him, it is the principle rather than the result that counts. Media workers report every day on the struggles Hong Kong people have for democracy - be they big or small. “If I do not also work for it, I cannot face myself.” On this, Choi was speaking for many.
Looking at the recent happenings that are targeted at the media, Choi thinks that the Next Media Trade Union’s insistence on defending press freedom is both for the benefit of the whole industry, as well as for the “welfare” of the media workers. “Seeing our co-field workers being ‘harmonized’ one by one, you know you will be left on your own if you remain silent.” Hence, the Next Media Trade Union will be in solidarity with their co-field colleagues in Mingpao in the case of changing the editor-in-chief, with those in RTHK for the intervention by the Director of Broadcasting, and even those in the the selling of Next Media Taiwan. When Kevin Lau was attacked, many in the Next Media felt the pain. They joined force with the RTHK Trade Union and invited other colleagues to help form the words “freedom” in Chinese, to express the determination to defend the independence and freedom of press. Choi put it simply, “it is about extending support, lighting candles.” It is important to insist regardless of the scales and the results of the actions. It is the courage and perseverance to move on that is invaluable.