The South China Morning Post has made 18 journalists redundant, more than five per cent of the workforce. Among them are leader writer Sheila MacNamara, formerly with The Observer, Danny Gittings, editor of the Focus section, and investigative reporter Adam Luck.
Editor Thomas Abraham told Press Gazette the redundancies, made last month, were part of the global downturn. "It was an economic decision," he said.
The redundancies have been covered extensively in the Chinese press, which called it the "autumn revenge", claiming some of the axed journalists had paid the price for their support of China editor Willie Wo Lap Lam.
MacNamara and Gittings, son of The Guardian’s John Gittings, were the organisers a year ago of a petition from Post staff deploring the removal of the respected China editor from his desk post to concentrate on his column. Lam refused to accept the change and resigned.
He had previously written a story about Hong Kong tycoons being summoned to Beijing and instructed to do more to support the Hong Kong chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Lam alleged they were promised lucrative contracts on the mainland in return.
One of the tycoons present in Beijing was the Post’s former boss, Robert Kuok, who wrote to the paper claiming Lam’s story was full of distortions. Lam responded that he stood by every word.
MacNamara said that she, Gittings and Glen Schloss, the diplomatic correspondent, were deeply worried by the development.
"We viewed it as an attempt at censorship and felt it would seriously damage the paper’s credibility abroad," she said. "We composed a letter asking the editor [then Robert Keatley] to pass it to management. When our colleagues learned about this, almost to a man they asked to be included and a petition was signed.
"I was prepared for the chop because I was told recently by one of our deputy editors that the things we have always made an issue of [rule of law, freedom of assembly, right of abode and the need for a law on racial equality] were extremely boring and the Hong Kong public was only interested in livelihood issues."
Abraham dismissed the idea that these reasons had anything to do with the job losses.
"It is absolute nonsense. We had to lay off people because we will have less money to pay salaries from next month," he asserted.
MacNamara had been at the paper for more than five years and Gittings for 11. Luck joined the paper from London around a year ago.
By Jean Morgan