Former Committee to Protect Journalists Honoree Says Bloomberg Chief Should Not Chair Press Freedom Dinner

A prominent Hong Kong-based journalist has called on Daniel Doctoroff, Chief Executive Officer of Bloomberg L.P., to step down from his role as chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) annual International Press Freedom Awards dinner on Tuesday in New York because his company is engulfed in a press freedom controversy of its own, involving its China reporting team.

Ying Chan, who was an honoree at the same dinner fifteen years ago, called on Doctoroff to relinquish CPJ’s podium in the wake of the suspension of Hong Kong-based Bloomberg reporter Michael Forsythe on November 13. Forsythe was a leading member of the company’s respected China news team. Bloomberg employees told The New York Times that Bloomberg’s Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler said the company would not publish the China team’s latest long-term investigations on the financial ties of China’s top leaders to powerful buinsess interests. The employees characterized Winkler’s moves as self-censorship to protect the company’s interests in China, the world’s second-largest economy, which lacks a free press.

Winkler and Michael Bloomberg, the outgoing New York City Mayor who owns the company, have aggressively denied the self-censorship allegations, saying instead that the contested stories are not ready for publication.

“As a former recipient of the [CPJ’s] Press Freedom Award, I think Doctoroff should withdraw from the dinner or he should be disinvited,” Chan, now a Professor of Journalism at Hong Kong University and the founder of its Journalism and Media Studies Center, said in an email.

The CPJ Awards dinner on Tuesday is set to honor four journalists from Ecuador, Egypt, Turkey, and Vietnam who, the New York-based organization’s website says, “face imprisonment or other persecution for exposing realities.” The CPJ 2013 International Press Freedom Awards, is, the site says, “an annual recognition of the courageous reporting that defines free media.”

Forsythe was a part of the team that won Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize and a George Polk Award for “Revolution to Riches,” a series reporting on the secret wealth of China’s leading Communist Party families. On November 13, he was suspended by Bloomberg and escorted from the newsroom in Hong Kong. Forsythe’s dismissal followed a front page New York Times story on November 8 in which four unnamed Bloomberg employees alleged that Winkler, in an October 29 conference call, said the company would not publish their latest investigative story even after editors and the Bloomberg legal team had approved it. The Bloomberg journalists told The Times that their work would not be published because Winkler cited concerns on the call that the company would lose its ability to operate in China. Bloomberg’s website has been blocked by government censors in China since late last year when the investigative team’s “Revolution to Riches” stories first ran.

Forsythe has not commented on his release from Bloomberg, but told ChinaFile that he is “unemployed and looking for a job.”

“I’d like to stay in journalism,” he said.

Chan was honored in 1997, as the citation on CPJ’s website says, for “battling a criminal libel suit by a high-ranking Taiwanese ruling party official over their reporting of an alleged offer of an illegal contribution to the Clinton re-election campaign.”

“[Doctoroff] has no standing to host such a dinner that celebrates and honors fighters for press freedom while Bloomberg practices such egregious self-censorship and suppresses press freedom. The situation cannot be more ironic,” Chan said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to embarrass CPJ, but we’re journalists. We’re used to dealing with breaking news. So, we should just respond properly,” she added.

When asked about Chan’s comments, Doctoroff declined to comment through a Bloomberg spokesperson.

Sandra Mims Rowe, Chairman of the CPJ Board of Directors, declined to be interviewed, as did CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. Rowe issued the following statement:

I chair the CPJ board of directors and have heard from several board members that you are trying to draw a connection between Dan Doctoroff chairing the Press Freedom Awards banquet next week and Bloomberg’s handling of the recent China stories. I can speak for CPJ. This is a false linkage. We are pleased to have Dan Doctoroff as chair of the event and we look forward to a successful banquet on Tuesday.

The CPJ mission statement declares that the organization “ensures the free flow of news and commentary by taking action wherever journalists are attacked, imprisoned, killed, kidnapped, threatened, censored, or harassed.”

Asked about Chan’s statement, CPJ Board member and Columbia Journalism Review Chairman Victor Navasky said: “I have a different understanding of what happened at Bloomberg and disagree that Doctoroff ought to step down at the dinner. It’s inappropriate to call on him to step down.”

CPJ Board member David Schlesinger, the former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China and now a Hong Kong-based business consultant, said, “I think Bloomberg’s support of CPJ is absolutely important.” (Schlesinger is also a contributor to ChinaFile.) Journalist CPJ Board members who declined to comment on Chan’s call for Doctoroff to step down as CPJ’s host include Time Inc.’s Norman Pearlstine (who recently left his post as Bloomberg’s Chief Content Officer), Reuters Editor-in-Chief Stephen Adler, Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, Arianna Huffington, and Geraldine Fabrikant of The New York Times.

Chan, for her part, made a final suggestion about how CPJ should resolve the dinner controversy: “Maybe they should fly him [Forsythe] over there. He should be recognized for his efforts.”