Press freedom and safety warning as BBC moves 75-year-old Chinese Service from London to Hong Kong

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Journalists working for the BBC’s Chinese Service fear that its ability to report freelly will be undermined by moving most key editorial staff to Hong Kong.

Some 16 editorial position in London will close as a result of the move with ten new jobs opening in Hong Kong.

The service has been based in London for 75 years and has been online-only since 2004. It attracts some 1.5m unique browsers per month to its Chinese language website.

Howard Zhang, who heads up the service’s National Union of Journalists chapel, said: “It is a politically-motivated decision, rather one that is made in consideration of the national interest or the BBC’s long-term interest.

“It is a result of turf-fighting and middle-managers keen to please their bosses. Every department has been asked for savings, the Chinese Service is vulnerable because the head of Chinese Service is currently a vacant position.”

NUJ members at the China service have highlighted the fact that last week the editor-in-chief of Hong Kong newspaper Min Pao was sacked after Beijing was critical of its coverage of the Panama Papers.

They said that Government-backed companies have bought nearly half of Hong Kong’s main newspapers and TV stations, including the South China Morning Post.

Zhang said: “Moving key editorial decision-making people to Hong Kong places them under direct Chinese threat.”

NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet said: “Off-shoring the BBC Chinese Service will jeopardise the safety of BBC staff.

“Relocating journalists from London to Hong Kong, especially journalists who have historically been critical of Beijing as they strove for journalistic truth and integrity, just puts them in the eye of the storm.  That is assuming that they want to relocate.

“If the additional ten announced posts are not filled by existing staff, newly appointed local employees will not have the back knowledge to maintain journalistic excellence or their current role as an independent voice of authority in the region.  Worryingly, nor will they have the security of a British passport to protect them from the potential wrath of the Beijing regime.”

A spokesman for the BBC World Service said: “We need to change the way BBC Chinese works to improve our reach and impact in China. In a fiercely competitive market, we need more first-hand reporting in China and cannot continue relying on content produced in London, nine hours behind the relevant time zone. We believe these changes will enable us to provide our Chinese audience globally with an independent and compelling news offer it can’t find elsewhere. They will also help us to explore new ways to circumvent web blocking and censorship.

“While safety is always of paramount importance, BBC Chinese staff are able to report from Hong Kong independently and without interference from authorities, and we believe this will continue in Hong Kong which hosts regional headquarters and offices for more than a 100 leading international media organizations. The BBC faces challenges to press freedom all over the world every day – and this move will not change our commitment to impartial journalism in any way.”

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