A former South China Morning Post (SCMP) editor who quit the publication last year over its rejection of a report on human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region received a threat of “further action” over alleged “unauthorized use of materials” from the Hong Kong outlet.
On Oct. 13, Peter Langan revealed that he resigned from his senior editor role at the newspaper’s China desk during a Foreign Correspondents’ Club talk in Japan.
According to Langan, he and two other reporters quit after their three-month investigation into human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region was killed by higher-ups at the Alibaba Group-owned news outlet.
The resulting three-part series, which focused on birth control policies in the Muslim-dominated western region, relied on three decades of government birth control data, including 17 years of national birth control statistics.
Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), which published a report on the subject, obtained the drafts of the unpublished SCMP report, which reportedly also referenced data from the National Health Commission, birth and population growth statistics from the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook and county-level documents.
The story highlighted figures that appeared contradictory and other points of contention. The reporters also cited different viewpoints over whether the information constituted “genocide” under UN definitions.
SCMP, however, claimed to HKFP that the series failed to meet its “editorial verification process and publishing standards.”
“Xinjiang had become the center of attention… because of lots of reports of the building of internment camps and the targeting of Uyghur people,” Langan said during the conference, noting that the topic was relevant due to “criticism within the newsroom of the so-called Western media and its coverage of Xinjiang.”
Based on the data that the reporters reviewed, the use of birth control devices and cases of sterilization in China had dropped significantly after the government lifted its one-child policy in 2016 — except in Xinjiang.
“When I presented this to the executive editor, it was rejected,” Langan said. “We had a number of conference calls after that, discussing it – but it was clear that there was just no way they were going to publish this story on Xinjiang, and the criticism it implied of China’s Communist Party.”
He shared that a few months after all the reporters on the story had resigned, he followed suit.
“The reporters had spent about three months researching this story and had ready answers to the challenges because they had delved so deeply into the data and the issues,” Langan told KHFP. “However, as the calls repeated and the same re-packaged questions kept arising it became clear that there was another agenda, because the process became irrational. What that agenda was can only be answered by the SCMP editor that declined to publish.”
HKFP Editor-in-Chief Tom Grundy later revealed in a tweet that just hours after the HKFP story was published, Langan received a threat of “further action” from the SCMP.
“We have come to realize that you might be using or have used materials, articles, drafts or information which are prepared or have come into your possession during your employment with the Company,” the notice reads.
“Any unauthorized use of such materials constitutes a copyright infringement and a breach of the above covenant under your employment contract,” the letter continues. “You should stop any such use immediately. If you or others have possession of such materials, you should retrieve all such materials and return them to us within 7 days. Any unauthorized use is not merely prohibited by your contract but is also unprofessional and unethical. If you fail to comply with the above, we will take further action against you.”
Grundy posited that the publication “perhaps wrongly thought we’d publish the series.”