Li Wei-ling says censorship is bad for all business

Li Wei-ling, the former talk-show host at Commercial Radio, rose to prominence after a controversial dismissal a week ago. From calling a press conference, participating in a free speech rally, to joining the newly-formed Independent Commentator Association, Li aims to ensure Hong Kong press freedom remains in tact. She spoke to Jennifer Chan about her concerns on increased media censorship, declining press freedom and what it could mean for Hong Kong’s advertising industry.

What is your biggest concern about the future of press freedom in Hong Kong?

The pressure put on the press has escalated to the point when truth is no longer allowed. This is scary, it affects every level of society and every sector of the industry. For example, increased threats to press freedom are having a profound impact on the advertising landscape. Mandatory ad withdrawals not only distort the market, it strangles creativity and as a result, undermines the effectiveness of advertising. Censorship is a contagious disease that would infect the others once it is applied to one sector. No one in society should turn a cold shoulder to the issue of increased media censorship.

What was your biggest accomplishment at Commercial Radio?

I am not a good presenter, but one achievement in my nine years contribution to Commercial Radio was that I injected a news-gathering element into phone-in programmes. This helped raise issues from the grass roots. If one day these sorts of phone-in programmes disappeared, citizens would be the ones who suffered.

You were one of the leader at Sunday's "Free Speech, Free Hong Kong" protest. What did the protest achieve?

There’s big room for improvement. For instance, the protest had been announced ahead of the venue being booked, giving others [opposition protestors] a chance to book the venue ahead of us. The bitterness continued all the way down to the chief executive's office where there's hardly any room to assemble. We are amateur protester and this is a learning phase. Without much marketing, 6,000 to 10,000 participants took part in the march. It shows promise. We hope to change people's hearts through protests and rallies as a platform for the public to speak out and make their voice heard.

How do you address the problems without the Commercial Radio platform?

It comes down to the question of how to make a breakthrough. For me, it is about using new media. Mobile devices are well-equipped for radio broadcasting, but the adoption is still relatively low. In respect of news consumption on mobile, users may stick to reading news articles and watching news clips for updates instead of listening to the radio, but at the end of the day, it’s a matter of habits. Now that I have more free time, I will put more energy on exploring the new media, digital and mobile broadcast and my Facebook page for example.

Is new media a big driver for communicating public concerns about media censorship?

New media is among one of the drives. But it has yet to penetrate the wide audience base of traditional media. Sunday's protest, for instance, stirred considerable attention and discussions on the internet, but the majority of the people who came to shake my hand were mostly radio listeners. That being said, the prospect of new media is one full of promise. An increasing number of taxi drivers are now exploring the possibility of listening to radio on mobile while driving, for example.

What are the economic implications of a more controlled media industry?

The value of our conscience should not be overshadowed by financial factors, but press freedom is closely linked to the development of financial and economic growth.

Hypothetically speaking, if you were a Hong Kong company looking to tap into the China market, would you place an ad on Apply Daily?

I understand some there are external and internal pressures and concerns and big corporations are suffering. Regarding the rumoured companies which pull ads from mainstream newspapers, I have no intention to make a judgement call. If the speculation is to be believed, we should then fight together as we are all in the same boat. Looking at it from a different perspective, at a time when companies place ads on constrained newspapers, they may gain respect and support from a certain groups of readers.

Do you believe that the central government is behind these senior editorial changes?

It goes without saying that CY Leung cannot take criticism from the press, otherwise his lawyer's letter wouldn't have sent to HKEJ's editor and demanded for withdrawal of an opinion piece attacking him. One should not lose its footing in the face of political pressure.

What can people in the advertising industry do?

Speak out. This market is either moving forward or falling behind. When you see a problem and feel obliged to change it, make your voice heard.