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Journalists Fear Proposed Hong Kong Security Law May Curb Media - 2003-07-07


Hong Kong journalists say the territory's proposed new security law could sharply curtail the news media. Worries about the Beijing-backed bill grow out of China's role as the world's leading jailer of journalists.

Hong Kong journalists say they worry the restrictions that now censor journalists in mainland China might be imposed on Hong Kong's free press if proposed security laws go into effect. The laws are backed by China's central government. The laws are required under Article 23 of the territory's constitution, which Beijing helped draft before the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied that freedoms are in jeopardy.

But the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said China has 38 journalists in jail, more than any other nation.

Lin Neumann, head of the group's Asia program, said reporters in China are imprisoned mostly for violating vague laws about national security and state secrets.

In one recent case, a lawyer was arrested after real estate transactions in Shanghai were deemed "state secrets," a definition few other countries would apply. "I think there is a general fear that the special character of Hong Kong as an island of freedom and civil liberties in China is really in jeopardy," Mr. Neumann said.

China also restricts the international news media; police often detain foreign correspondents in the mainland for covering what would appear to be unimportant events. Recently, several journalists were detained for covering a protest by laid-off workers at a department store.

Francis Moriarty, head of the press freedom committee of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong, says the danger of China's restrictions on the news media was hammered home by the recent Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis. "People here know very well that if the mainland can cover something up, that is the first thing they try to do," Ms. Moriarty said.

When SARS developed in southern China late last year, the news media were barred from reporting about it, and the government lied about the spread of the disease. Eventually, SARS killed more than 800 people around the world, nearly 300 in Hong Kong.

Experts say Beijing's efforts to hide SARS cost lives because it left Hong Kong and the rest of the world unprepared to fight the disease.

On July 1, 500,000 people in Hong Kong marched to show their concern about press restrictions and other aspects of the security laws. That strong political statement forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to indefinitely delay a vote on the legislation and soften some provisions.

The original version of the laws included bans on publishing state secrets and possessing any material that could be considered seditious.

One change would allow journalists to defend themselves in court by arguing that the release of state secrets is in the public interest. The chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalist's Association, Cheung Ping-ling, said the change is not enough.

"Their definition of public interest is too narrow. And (there are) so many gray areas, so I think it can not be sufficient for us to protect press freedom and freedom of speech," Ms. Cheung said.

It is not clear when the government will present a new version of the legislation or how it may be ultimately be changed.

As if to emphasize the difference between China and Hong Kong, Beijing has permitted very little coverage of the protest and debate on the laws in the mainland media. Hong Kong's newspapers and news programs, however, have been filled with the issue for a week.

Hong Kong was a British colony for 150 years. When it reverted to Chinese rule, Beijing promised to maintain the territory's Western-style legal, political, and economic system for at least 50 years. Many observers see the security laws as a test of that pledge.