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Self-Censorship: A Threat to Hong Kong's Free Press - 2002-07-04

This week, Hong Kong marks five years as a Special Administrative Region of China. Over the years, there have been worries about limits to press freedom in the territory, especially when it comes to reports on issues Beijing considers sensitive. Observers warn the biggest threat to the press may be self-censorship, not government restrictions.

The press in Hong Kong has long been among the most free and aggressive in the world and certainly in Asia. Some journalists and political observers, however, now fret that freedom is being chipped away.

Hong Kong lawmaker Emily Lau said editors soften their China coverage to avoid being controversial. "I have even been told by journalists who said that certain pro-democracy politicians should never appear on television. The employers, many of them have taken the conscious decision not to upset the powers that be," Ms. Lau said.

Last year, the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned that issues Beijing finds sensitive such as Taiwanese and Tibetan independence have become forbidden topics at many local news organizations.

But in five years under Beijing's control, there is little evidence of government interference in Hong Kong's press freedoms. One of the largest Chinese language dailies, Apple Daily, a racy newspaper with mass-market appeal, is at times quite critical of China.

Mark Simon, the paper's business manager, said the Next Media Group, which owns Apple Daily, has no business links to China. Hong Kong's other newspapers, he said, are either owned by companies with investments in China or have advertisers afraid of offending Beijing.

"I think the primary point to look at here is really ownership of the papers, who owns the papers now and what are their main business interests. I can assure you right now that no mainland company that has heavy government ties advertises with us at all," Mr. Simon said.

Mak Yin-ting, head of the Hong Kong Journalist Association, said self-censorship has become a problem, as reporters find editors reject sensitive stories.

"These kinds of no-go areas are formed gradually because when you raise an issue and compile a story and the editor just throws it into the rubbish bin. You may try another time. Well, should I spare time on those stories that will never be run in the newspaper or never be aired?" Mr. Mak asked.

Two years ago, an official at China's liaison office in Hong Kong warned the media not to carry reports discussing the idea of Taiwan independence. Beijing considers the island part of its territory, although it has been governed separately since 1949. Both local and international media groups soundly criticized the warning and stories about the issue still appear.

Yeun-Ying Chan, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Center at Hong Kong University, said Beijing's influence is not as far reaching as people may assume. She blamed poor China coverage on reporters she said are inexperienced and lazy.

"Everything in Hong Kong, everything that goes wrong could be interpreted as (an) edict from Beijing because of the hypersensitivity. My concern that this is self-limiting, one cannot reduce everything to Beijing," Mr. Chan said.

One possible risk to Hong Kong's press freedoms lies in the territory's constitution, known as the Basic Law. In the late 1990's, when the constitution was written, Beijing insisted on including a provision requiring Hong Kong to pass laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition or subversion. Critics say that if subversion laws are eventually passed, press freedom could suffer because sedition and subversion are vague terms.

Despite the concerns, international news media remain entrenched in Hong Kong, with several large companies maintaining their Asia headquarters in the city.

Peter Stein is the managing editor of the Asian Wall Street Journal. The paper is based in Hong Kong and is owned by the company that publishes The Wall Street Journal in the United States. "It's fair to say that most news organizations would find that there's no interference in the way you go about doing your own job and I think it's certainly true for us," Mr. Stein said.

He adds, however, that his organization will watch closely the development of anti-sedition laws. He said any major changes to press freedoms in Hong Kong would see an exodus of international news companies.