‘Terrified’ Founder Decides to Shutter Hong Kong Pro-Democracy News Site ‘House News’

Screen Capture of the House News' Facebook Page. The site had more than 230 thousand Facebook followers before it shut down.

Screen Capture of the House News’ Facebook Page. The site had more than 230 thousand Facebook followers before it shut down.

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:

我恐懼

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。

令我最不安,是家人也感受到這股壓力,終日替我擔心。隨著社會氣氛逐漸緊張,這股壓力在我身邊蔓延的程度令我日益困擾。

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:

從開始,我們當一盤正常生意來做,可是,在不正常的社會及市場氣氛下,主場新聞的廣告收入跟它的影響力,不成比例。主場新聞小本經營(很多熟悉我們的博客可作證),但創辦至今,每月從未達至收支平衡。最大問題是在可見將來,香港社會氣氛只會更見緊張,從生意角度,主場新聞實在看不到曙光。有人問我,主場新聞有沒有出現抽廣告情況,答案是沒有,從未落,何來抽?香港不單止核心價值被扭曲,市場也被扭曲。

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:

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):

影響力漸見,既喜亦憂。我們這城市,遊戲規則是這樣的,你搞得無聲無息,無人問津,縱使「反動」,說話不中聽,有關方面會隻眼開隻眼閉,無時間關心你。若媒體影響力大,引人注目,還要搞串連,自然會有人搞你。
搞,有很多方式。結業,是政治原因、經濟原因,還是「誤判恐懼」,又怎能分得清楚。

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:

在其他傳媒歸順下,成為「真理部」的工具時,如果能成功消滅蘋果,在親共傳媒的操作和篩選下,一切反駁聲音便會消失泰半。[...] 因此,不難看到,對蘋果的打擊是如何全方位進行中――先是商戶抽廣告,繼而是黑客攻擊,現在是利用所謂政治捐獻(還被扭曲為「黑金政治」),在資源上削弱(斷其資金),在運作上打擊(增加成本),並在道德上抹黑(撲滅同情),全方位開動,誓要殺之而後快。

當然,今天還有互聯網。網媒越來越多,網絡成為「第五權」,不單協助監察政府,連傳媒也成為監察對象。網媒眾多,個別更甚具影響力。但正因如此,可以預期,中共在宣揚歪理和統戰傳統傳媒有了初步成效時,必會針對網絡開戰[...]

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.

2 comments

  • It’s pretty sad and worrying. On the one hand people are entitled to look after their own well being, if you feel threatened or scared then should you continue? Our families worry about us, nobody wants to end up in jail for 10 years on some trumped up charge. Or even more subtly to loose all your customers and end up broke and unable to care for ourselves or those in our family. But at the same time it isn’t “right” to back down before a bully, so where do we go from here?

  • […] The House News, a popular pro-democracy news site in Hong Kong modeled after the Huffington Post, had to shut its doors on July 26, under significant political […]

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