Agnes Lam Iok Fong is the acting Director of the Centre for Macau Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Macau. This former journalist (TDM), who now sits as a member elected to the Legislative Assembly, is the main reference of communication studies in the region. She speaks to Macau Business about the media and freedom of expression in Macau and shares with the readers data from the opinion studies she has been conducting at the University of Macau.
Is it an exaggeration to say that the Chinese language media in Macau is dominated by the Ou Mun newspaper?
Agnes Lam – Ou Mun newspaper is still a dominant newspaper in Macau’s Chinese language media industry, even though its readership has decreased over the past decade.
The University of Macau has been conducting media consumption habit surveys in Macau since 2007. Figures show that people who read this newspaper every day was over 60% in 2007 and around 38% in 2016.
For those newspaper readers who still read the newspaper every week, in both 2016 and 2017 Ou Mun newspaper still ranked number one. In 2016, the top five most-read newspapers (including Hong Kong newspapers) in Macau were Ou Mun (92.4%), Exmoo (30.1%), Apple Daily News (27.3%), Oriental Daily (26.9%) and Va Kio Daily (18.7%).
In 2017, they were Ou Mun (89.6%), Exmoo (35.7%), Apple Daily News (26.3%), Oriental Daily (18.9%) and Va Kio Daily (12.6%).
What role do you think the Ou Mun Tin Toi ‘Macau Forum’ programme plays?
A.L. – Regarding Ou Mun Tin Toi’s ‘Macau Forum,’ I believe that it is a compelling forum. I don’t have any figures to support my statement. Judging from my observation, most of the government departments nowadays would assign someone to listen to the programme and prepare a response to any complaint made by the callers. Some departments are now making instant responses or clarification by having a spokesperson call the programme.
The government is also sending their directors onto the programme to explain policy directly to the audience. What I can see now is that the MSAR Government is a lot more concerned about its reputation and sees Ou Mun Tin Toi ‘Macau Forum’ as crucial to their image [as well as being] useful as a communication tool.
Is it in the streets, through demonstrations, that freedom of expression has manifested itself most strongly in Macau in these years of the Macau SAR?
A.L. – I believe so. People are expressing themselves freely when they are protesting, judging from the language of the slogans and posters they are using. They can demand the Chief Executive step down or resign . . .
Some local journalists complain of a lack of government transparency and of many difficulties in accessing official sources. How do you comment?
A.L. – Comparing the time when I was a journalist in the 1990’s it was difficult but possible to arrange private interviews with high ranked officials such as the under-Secretaries. What I hear from journalists now it is almost impossible for the media to request a one-on-one interview.
“The Portuguese and English press could also [position] themselves as an elite newspaper that serves the Chinese community while [serving] the local ethnic minority community” – Agnes Lam
It is clear that it is hard to access the government officials on the one hand. However, nowadays officials are more willing to show up on the radio’s Macau Forum, TDM’s Sunday talk show, and even Lotus TV’s daily evening talk show. This change means that the government is more willing to deal with public opinion directly and can bypass the media. This is not good news for the media.
‘There are no universities without academic freedom,’ we often hear it said. What is the situation in Macau?
A.L. – Judging from my own experience, I think the situation is alright. I can research any topic without restriction. I understand some people are very sceptical about the academic freedom situation, and sometimes people don’t want to comment upon issues publicly, but there is institutional restriction has been implemented on our research so far.
Can the Internet and social networks assert themselves as an alternative to conventional media in Macau?
A.L. – The conventional media is still the dominant media in Macau regarding news consumption. According to the survey I conducted in 2017, 46.0% of the Macau population use the TV as their primary medium of news, 39.4% use the Internet, 10.7% use the newspaper, and 1.5% use the radio.
In 2016, 47.5% of the population used the TV as their primary source of news, the Internet 35.3%, newspapers 13.1%, and radio broadcasting 2.3%.
From the figures from these two surveys it is clear that more people are using the Internet as their primary source for news but the conventional media, including TV and newspapers, still hold the dominant position.
The ranking of credibility of the media in Macau, measured by HKPOP, is lower today than in 2003. Any explanation?
A.L. – I’m not familiar with that data and the way they measure credibility so I cannot comment on it.
However, I believe that the credibility of the media in Macau may be affected by two factors. One is more an international trend that most of the traditional media are less popular as the new media nowadays can provide a lot of first-hand information and personal views of anyone that witness [events] making or affected by a news story. It is too easy for an ordinary person to criticise a news media’s report just because he or she is a passer-by of a news event and witnesses something different from what the media is reporting. This is a global trend, and we cannot do much about it.
The second one is about the competition coming from Hong Kong. Macau has been attracting a lot more attention from the Hong Kong news media over the past decade. The style of the Hong Kong media is more straightforward than the local Macau press; this would suggest that Macau media are less critical of the government. This would make some people believe that the Macau media is less credible.
“The ruling elites feel the pressure from the Portuguese and English media”
In your opinion, what role do the Portuguese and English media play? Do you think they can exert influence?
A.L. – The Portuguese and English media will not directly affect the majority of the population but could be much more influential than they are now.
On the one hand, the significant readers of the Portuguese and English media are the governing elites (the government prepares the translated content) and the expats connected to the international world. China believes that Macau is a successful example of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
All these factors add up, making the Portuguese and English media a critical window through which to observe if Macau is doing well or not vis-à-vis their international counterparts. The ruling elites feel the pressure from the Portuguese and English media if they assume a critical position on local issues.
At the same time, the Portuguese and English media are more outspoken. These characteristics make them liable among those holding an unfavourable view of the government. This is why sometimes the news coverage or commentary from the Portuguese and English media is widely circulated on social media within the Chinese community.
“The MSAR Government concerns itself a lot more with its reputation and sees Ou Mun Tin Toi ‘Macau Forum’ as crucial to their image [as well as being] useful as a communication tool” – Agnes Lam
What I observe now is that most of the Portuguese and English media are positioning themselves more like an ethnic minority community newspaper. It is right, and there is nothing wrong with this, but I think that the Portuguese and English press could also [position] themselves as an elite newspaper that serves the Chinese community while [serving] the local ethnic minority community. They can also try to explore the market when the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is truly on the political agenda.
The connections with Portugal, Portuguese [speaking] countries, and Europe and Africa are all strengths that the Portuguese and English media in Macau should amplify and put in place. To most of the Chinese elite, if they want to know more about the world, they read the South China Morning Post or New York Times. Now, with the ‘One Belt, One Road’, there should be at least one Portuguese newspaper or one English newspaper that has a strong connection with the Portuguese-speaking countries as a primary source of information about countries on the ‘One Belt, One Road’ map.
I always believe that the Portuguese and English media should be some important soft power for Macau when communicating with the world and also a window for Chinese to understand Southern Europe and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ countries.
In short, I think that the Portuguese and English media should not [only] look at them as a community newspaper for the ethnic minority but as an ‘international lens’ within Macau society, and a prominent elite newspaper for China to understand the ‘true West (not only the US and UK).’