HONG KONG - The first China-born editor of Hong Kong's flagship English-language paper admits he made a "bad call" in cutting coverage of a mainland dissident's death, but denies he is a stooge for Beijing.
The South China Morning Post's editor-in-chief Wang Xiangwei has himself been making the news, accused of muzzling the newspaper to appease Chinese authorities, amid a broader fear that Hong Kong is losing cherished freedoms.
Such concerns fuelled Hong Kong's biggest protest in eight years on Sunday just after a weekend visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, to mark the 15th anniversary of the territory's handover and the inauguration of its new leader.
Angry journalists at the 109-year-old South China Morning Post, one of the world's most profitable dailies, allege a steady erosion of their freedom to report on China since Wang took over the editorship in February.
He began his career at the state-run China Daily, Beijing's leading English-language paper, and sits on a mainland political advisory body. He has even been forced to deny that he is a secret Communist Party member.
"If I had a hidden agenda, it would have come out a long time ago," Wang, 47, told AFP in an interview.
Internal bickering at the SCMP exploded into the open after the death last month of Li Wangyang, a Tiananmen Square democracy activist who was found hanged in his mainland hospital ward.
The official verdict was suicide. But his family suspect foul play given that Li was blind, nearly deaf and barely able to walk. His death received prominent coverage across Hong Kong's Chinese-language media.
But while the SCMP carried the Li story at length in the first edition of the June 7 newspaper, Wang replaced it for the second edition and reduced the original story to a 101-word brief.
"It was never my intention to downplay that story and try to exercise self-censorship," Wang said in the interview, adding he was "shocked at the scale of the reaction to all of this".
"I have to make a lot of decisions, and looking back on this one, it was a bad call."