The House News, a popular pro-democracy news site in Hong Kong modeled after the Huffington Post, was shut down without warning on July 26.
Tony Tsoi, a House News co-founder and key investor, announced the closure in a note posted to the site at 5 p.m. He explained that political pressure against critical voices and a lack of advertisers drove his decision to shutter the site.
Launched in July 2012 as a news curation and blog site, The House News grew to become one of the most popular online media outlets in Hong Kong, ranking 57 in traffic from Hong Kong on Alexa with 300,000 unique visitors per day. Yet over the past two years, the news platform failed to attract enough advertisers to keep afloat.
Tsoi, who supports protest movement Occupy Central's plans to peacefully take over central Hong Kong and demand the right to choose candidates for the city's next chief executive election, said in the shutdown announcement that he is “terrified” by the political atmosphere:
原來今天的香港已經變了，做一個正常公民、做一個正常媒體、為社會做一點正當的事，實在不容易，甚至感到恐懼 — 不是陌生，而是恐懼。由於當前政治鬥爭氣氛令人極度不安，多位民主派人士，被跟蹤、被抹黑、被翻舊賬，一股白色恐怖氛圍在社會瀰漫，我亦感覺到這種壓力。還有，作為一個經常往返內地公幹的商人，我得承認，每次過境都會提心吊膽，但這是我過分疑神疑鬼嗎？那種感覺，根本不可能向外人説得清楚。
I am terrified.
Hong Kong has changed. To act as a normal citizen, a normal media outlet and to do something right for society is becoming difficult, or even terrifying — not that you feel alienated, but fearful. The ongoing political struggle makes people very anxious — many democrats are tracked and smeared. Their past records have been dug up. A sense of White Terror lingers in society and I feel the pressure as well. As a businessman who travels frequently to mainland China, I admit that every time I walk past the border, I am scared. Am I being paranoid? It is difficult to explain the feeling to outsiders.
My family feels the pressure and they are worried about me. As the atmosphere gets more tense, the pressure around me becomes more disturbing.
A former British colony, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of communist China and enjoys a high level of autonomy from the communist country under the idea of “one country, two systems.” Relations between the two have become tense in recent months. China has promised Hong Kong a direct vote for the next chief executive in 2017 for the first time, but insists that a committee approve the candidates.
The mainland considers “love of country” to be important criteria for Hong Kong's administrators, according to a white paper released by the government. Some Hong Kongers suspect they will only have pro-Beijing candidates to choose from, defeating the purpose of a direct vote.
Businesses aren't keen to advertise with pro-democracy media for fear of souring their relationship with the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, making it nearly impossible for sites to develop a sustainable business model based on advertising. Tsoi described the market in Hong Kong in his shutdown note:
At the beginning, we had a business model in mind. But in an abnormal society and market, the revenue generated from The House News advertising is not proportional to its impact. Our budget is not big, but since our launch, we never have had a balanced budget. The biggest problem is that in the near future, the atmosphere in Hong Kong will become more tense. We can't see any hope from a business point of view. Some people asked me if any of our clients withdrew their ads. My answer is no. They never advertise on our site in the first place. Our core value has been twisted, and now the market is also twisted.
Soon after the closure was announced, all of the site's content became inaccessible. The abrupt decision sparked wide speculation among netizens that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong's media. Wen Yunchao, a mainland Chinese blogger who is now based in the U.S., commented on Twitter:
— 北风（温云超, Yunchao Wen） (@wenyunchao) July 26, 2014
The major cause of the abrupt shutdown of The House News is more likely related to fear than business considerations. The fear most likely stems from direct threats rather than the political atmosphere — the imperative kind of threat in the form of “shut down or else you will face certain consequences.” If it is business considerations, they should at least look for a business partner, sell the business or seek another solution.
Au Ka Lun, a former journalist and columnist at The House News, wrote on his Facebook (republished on citizen media platform inmediahk.net with the writer's permission):
I felt happy and worried about the impact [of The House News]. In this city, the rules of the game are like this: If you don't have impact and no one cares about you, even though you are “politically on the wrong side” and say something unpleasant, authorities will play dumb as they don't have the spare time to pay attention to you. If the media outlet becomes influential, attracts attention and turns into a nexus for the progressive community, naturally they will “do something”.
There are different ways to “do something”. It is hard to distinguish if the shutdown is due to political considerations, business considerations or “fear and wrong judgement”.
A few days before The House News’ shuttered, pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai's donation to the democrats led the headlines in six major newspapers in Hong Kong. As Lai is the chairperson of the Next Media Group, current affairs commentator Yip Yat Chi hypothesized on inmediahk.net that Beijing is launching a major crackdown on pro-democracy media in Hong Kong, including the Next Media's Apple Daily News and major online media platforms:
As all other media outlets are cooperative and are turning into a tool of the “ministry of truth” [Chinese Communist Party propaganda], if they can eliminate Apple Daily News, opposition voices will be cut down by half. […] The crackdown against Apple Daily is so obvious — advertisements were withdrawn, the news site had been attacked by hackers. Now they turn the story of political donation into “corrupt money politics.” There are multiple dimensions to the crackdown: resources (cut its revenue), technical operations (increase its operational cost) and moral smearing (alienate it from public sympathy).
Of course today we still have the Internet. There are more and more online media outlets and the Internet has become the “fifth estate” serving the function of monitoring the government alongside mainstream media. Some online media has become influential and it is predictable that once the Chinese Communist Party has succeeded in building a united front among conventional media for propaganda purposes, they will start the online battle. […]
Yip Ya Chi explained that just as he was finishing up his piece, the House News announced its shutdown.
Which online media platform will be the next target of this suspected crackdown? What can be done to protect the media freedom environment in Hong Kong? Many Hong Kongers are wondering.