Five columnists have submitted blank columns to the Chinese newspaper Ming Pao in two days, in protest at the sacking of a top editor last week.

Keung Kwok-yuen, Ming Pao’s former executive chief editor, was fired last Wednesday to cut costs, according to the newspaper’s management. But its staff union suspected the move was meant to punish those “who have different opinions on editorial issues”.

The firing of Keung followed a front page story last Wednesday analysing the Panama Papers and the Hong Kong politicians and businessmen named in the documents leaked from a law firm.

Ming Pao printed three empty columns on Sunday April 24.
Ming Pao printed three empty columns on Sunday April 24.

Of the five empty columns, three were run in its Sunday Life supplementary section. Though intended to be blank except headlines criticising the controversial dismissal, a statement from the newspaper was added as an editor’s note to each column justifying the cost cutting measure.

The Sunday blank columns were from former lawmaker Audrey Eu Yuet-mee, former Ming Pao journalist Eva Chan Sik-chee and veteran commentator Ng Chi-sum.

Comic artist Wong Chiu-tat also drew on Sunday a six frame comic which the first five only printed dots, and a last frame with a red jacket on an empty chair, apparently referring to Keung who usually wears a similar jacket.

Eu said on Facebook that she was unhappy that the newspaper did not respect its columnists’ freedom of expression. Ng said the editor’s note was inappropriate.

On Monday, the newspaper printed two more blank columns by radio host Lee Wai-ling – with a headline They Can’t Kill Us All – and university journalism educator Vivian Tam Wai-wan. The same editor’s note was also added to each column.

Ming Pao printed two empty columns on Monday April 25.
Ming Pao printed two empty columns on Monday April 25.

The Ming Pao Staff Association said chief editor Chong Tien Siong had tried to stop printing Sunday’s blank columns.

The association said in a Facebook post that Chong, who was on leave on Saturday night, returned to work to stop the printing of the supplementary section and proposed not to include the blank columns, after it had been sent to print for an hour.

The blank columns were kept after negotiations but the editor’s note was included, and the pages had to be reprinted.

In 2014, Ming Pao also ran blank columns by five writers who protested against a sudden decision to replace former chief editor Kevin Lau Chun-to with Chong.

The association said it was “angry and disappointed” with Chong’s alleged attempt to obstruct freedom of expression. It added that his decision to stop the printing process resulted in economic losses for Ming Pao, which was not in line with the goal of cost cutting.

Chief Editor Chong Tien Siong questioned by staff.
Chief Editor Chong Tien Siong questioned by staff. Photo: Ming Pao Staff Association.

It demanded Chong admit the attempt to not print the empty columns was a mistake, revoke the decision to fire Keung and be responsible for the decision and apologise, explain the newspaper’s business status and consult staff members before implementing any cost-cutting plans.

The association said it might turn to stronger industrial action if the demands were not met by 5pm on Monday.

Former lawmaker Martin Lee Chu-ming will also submit an empty column to Ming Pao to be printed on Tuesday, according to Apple Daily.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.