Press freedom in Macau's gambling hub under spotlight as China ramps up scrutiny

Macau has always been touted as a poster child of Beijing's "one country, two systems" style of governance alongside neighbouring Hong Kong.
Macau has always been touted as a poster child of Beijing's "one country, two systems" style of governance alongside neighbouring Hong Kong.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - At a meeting at the Portuguese unit of Macau's public broadcaster TDM on March 10, two senior journalists addressed about 25 staff, reading new editorial rules requiring them to promote "patriotism, respect and love" for mainland China.

The measures targeting Macau's largest broadcaster were detailed to Reuters by two people who were at the meeting and mark the first time that Portuguese language media in the former colony have been directly targeted by authorities.

Since the meeting, at least six journalists have resigned, the sources said.

The world's biggest gambling hub, home to 700,000 people, has always been touted as a poster child of Beijing's "one country, two systems" style of governance alongside neighbouring Hong Kong. The system promises wide-ranging freedoms not seen in mainland China, including a free press and independent judiciary.

"We knew things might change one day, but this came as a total surprise to us," said one of the Portuguese journalists who attended the March meeting. They declined to be identified owing to the sensitivity of the matter.

The new TDM guidelines came roughly two weeks after Hong Kong announced an overhaul of its public broadcaster, RTHK, amid accusations by authorities that it has an anti-government bias.

Pressure is mounting on Macau's Portuguese and English media, which typically operate with more flexibility than the local Chinese press, which has faced tight censorship for more than a decade, journalists said.

Portuguese media in Macau, for instance, provided extensive coverage of Hong Kong's protests in 2019, while Chinese-language media there largely stayed away.

Macau's government said all news organisations in Macau have the freedom to set their own editorial guidelines and that it continues to respect and uphold the principle of the freedom of the press as stipulated in the city's Basic Law.

Hong Kong's government and TDM did not respond to requests for comment.

However, like Macau, the Hong Kong government has said rights and freedoms remain intact.

In a public statement in March, TDM said its editorial policy remained unchanged and it will continue to "perform its media social responsibility and adhere to the principle of patriotism and love for Macau."

Red line

More than half of Macau's population immigrated from China in recent decades, which has helped foster a stronger affinity for the mainland than in Hong Kong, where the bulk of residents were born in the territory.

Beijing typically lavishes praise on Macau while issuing stark warnings to Hong Kong that it will not tolerate any challenge to its authority. But Hong Kong's pro-democracy protests entangled Macau's media through their coverage and attracted Beijing's scrutiny, Macau experts said.

"People supporting Hong Kong, that was not allowed. There is a sensitivity about Hong Kong," said Eric Sautede, a former Macau university professor, who said a lot of TDM journalists from the English and Portuguese section went to Hong Kong to cover the protests.

"For them it was something big, how could they not cover it?" he added. "Retrospectively, one could suspect that they went across the red line, they showed a bit too much independence."

Paulo Coutinho, director and editor in chief of the Macau Daily Times, an English-language newspaper in Macau, said the TDM incident was a consequence of what has been going on since November 2019, when China warned publicly that it would firmly uphold its sovereignty, security and development interests.

"Entities that represent the government of China, they organise events and send messages. People... want to give more space to China's opinion," he said.

Macau's Portuguese and English Press Association expressed concern over the new TDM guidelines, in particular that staff are not allowed to "relay information or opinions contrary to the policies of the central government of the PRC."

Reporters without Borders condemned the moves at Hong Kong and Macau's public broadcasters and urged both governments to "cease their attacks against press freedom." 'Wild horse'

Connie Pang, a freelance journalist in Macau and former head of the Macau Journalists Press Association, said what Portuguese media were experiencing now was what local Chinese media had been seeing over the past 10 years.

"Now maybe TDM Portuguese news is the only wild horse left, so they want to impose the red line on it too," she said.

Journalists at many small Macanese media outlets are more cautious, as they rely heavily on government subsidies.

"They don't want us only to be neutral, to be balanced. They want us to support ... the Chinese Communist Party," said another senior journalist, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Some Portuguese journalists said the furore had so far not affected their reporting.

Jose Dinis, publisher of Jornal Tribuna de Macau, a Portuguese-language newspaper, said he had not felt pressure.

"I am not willing to say the wolves are coming. For the moment I don't see any problem," he said.

However, some Macau residents, like lawyer Jorge Menezes, see the TDM crackdown as the first step in a wider censorship of English and Portuguese-language media.

"There is no resistance in Macau; we can see what China wants to implement here and what they would want to do in Hong Kong and elsewhere," he said.