One country, free voices?

As China prepares to take over Hong Kong, the future for journalistic freedom is uncertain. Sections of the media have already been accused of self-censorship, writes JoJo Moyes
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The Independent Online
Taken at face value, the speech given last month to Hong Kong's business community by Tsang Tak Sing, chief editor of the Peking-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao and member of Hong Kong's government-in-waiting, sounded encouraging. Hong Kong journalists would have more freedom of speech after the handover, freed from "colonial restraints" and "repressive laws", he said. They would be free to criticise the Hong Kong government, as long as they stopped short of inciting protest.

But in China, such terms have an opaque quality. And as the handover looms, Hong Kong's journalists are daily trying to interpret their meaning - and receiving conflicting signals in the process.

Few media-watchers are bold enough to take a guess at what is going to happen to the Hong Kong media when the territory reverts to Chinese rule after 30 June. Some point hopefully to the recent release of the financial journalist Xi Yang from jail in mainland China, where he had been imprisoned for revealing "state secrets". They say that because a free press is necessary to keep Hong Kong's booming business community stable, Peking will extend its "one country, two systems" promise to the media.

"There is good news, like the release of Xi Yang, another positive is that broadcasting laws [which would have meant the Government could pre- censor broadcasts] were dropped," said Cliff Bale of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. "But the signals are very mixed at the moment. There's a great ambiguity."

Pessimists, such as legislator Emily Lau, a former journalist, or Huang Yumin, editor of Hong Kong's Mad Dog Daily newspaper, believe that in the face of such ambiguity, to stand still is to lose ground, and that Hong Kong's media should be "striking forward" as June approaches, to fight for the right to freedom of speech.

They accuse much of the mainstream media of instituting self-censorship already, demarcating their own "bottom line". And probably no newspaper has come under as much attack as the South China Morning Post, Asia's biggest English-language daily.

A number of charges are laid: the dropping in 1995 of The World of Lily Wong, the mischievously subversive cartoon strip about Hong Kong life and Chinese politics, now published in The Independent; the introduction of Chinese characters after the English language names of Chinese leaders; the use of a verbatim report from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency (and voice of the mainland government); the close relationship with China of the newspaper's proprietor, Robert Kuok. And last week the Post announced the appointment as editorial consultant of Feng Xiliang, a founding editor of China's state-backed China Daily newspaper.

The charge of self-censorship is vehemently denied by the newspaper's editor, Jonathan Fenby, formerly of The Observer and The Independent, who says that critics are often ill-informed, or ignoring the facts. "Journalistic decisions are being seen as political. It sticks in my throat when people are implicitly criticising journalists here who are at the frontline ... Our Chinese journalists are still getting involved in contentious stories. I think the people who criticise us don't realise the extent of the Chinese staff."

Many of the criticisms made, he says, stem from the paper's repositioning towards its Cantonese market - apparent in the proliferation of television adverts featuring Cantonese-speaking "chuppies".

The Chinese characters, he says, provide more accurate transliteration for readers; the Xinhua report was published in the same way that British papers will report occasional speeches verbatim; Lily Wong's demise was marked by only one Chinese letter of complaint - and that was from Democrat leader Martin Lee. Above all, he says, he receives no editorial interference from Mr Kuok.

"It's inevitable that people say that coverage is changing. The answer is yes, it would be amazing if it were different. This is not a place stuck in aspic, it's evolving all the time," he says.

Citing accusations of political bias, he says that he is merely reflecting the current political scene. "You could say in terms of coverage a year ago that the Democrats were the show in town. A year ago, if we wrote about CH Tung [the chief executive-designate] it would be on the business pages. Now, obviously, we're writing about Tung every day.

"I guess if you were a media monitor you could do a rundown and say we're no longer reporting the Democrats."

Mr Fenby argues that many of the paper's most vocal critics are British politicians who know little of Hong Kong, or Hong Kong politicians who use the paper for their own ends.

When he counted last year, he said, Democrats had had more references in the SCMP than anyone else and still make regular appearances in comment pages - a fact ignored in their many accusations of pro-China bias.

But it is worth remembering that the idea of the SCMP as a pluralist vanguard is relatively recent. While over the past decade Hong Kong journalism has been as irreverent as anywhere, many journalists remember a time when the paper was regarded as a colonial mouthpiece.

About future coverage, Mr Fenby is pragmatic (though he shies from the word, which he believes is used incorrectly as the opposite to "principled"), saying it is decided on an ad-hoc basis.

"To me, pragmatism means getting as good a newspaper out as you can, and gradually building up a certain position for the paper, which is one of trying in the reporting and in the analysis and comment areas to be relevant. I don't know how things will develop."

The bottom line, he says, is that circulation is going up - vindication, he believes, that the paper's view is still representative of Hong Kong society. "I've never been a great believer in the phrase used in the Vietnam war - that you have to bomb the town to save it," he says.

This is not a view shared by Jimmy Lai, proprietor of the Chinese-language Apple Daily, second only to the territory's Oriental Daily with an estimated circulation of three million readers.

Since the newspaper was set up two years ago, it has overtaken much of the highly competitive Chinese market by taking an unusually tough stance against the mainland authorities - a stance which has resulted in problems for Mr Lai's extensive mainland Chinese business interests. Lau Yiu-Sui, executive committee member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, believes the newspaper has tapped into a strong vein of feeling.

"The Apple Daily is very vocal in its criticisms. It is said to be more independent compared with other Chinese newspapers. It criticises the Chinese Government, takes a tougher attitude. But it reflects the will of the Hong Kong people," Mr Lau says.

"[The paper] always conducts opinion polls and they have their own mechanism to conduct those, so it's an accurate reflection. Very often we find that their polls reflect the views of those surveyed by the Hong Kong University or Chinese University." The newspaper has already attracted criticism from Peking, as has Ming Pao, another long-standing popular Chinese-language daily.

In contrast, the Oriental Daily, with an estimated four million readers, takes a variety of editorial positions, Mr Lau says, depending on the issue. "It's difficult to say if there's been a clear change. Sometimes they support the policy of the Chinese side and sometimes they are critical."

One thing everyone agrees is that the media - possibly reflecting the mood of the Chinese people - are taking a much more critical view of the current administration.

"It is because living standards are going down, not just because people's expenditure is higher but also because of the differences between the rich and poor. The dissatisfaction of the general public has been growing," Mr Lau says. Some of it may be inevitable hostility towards a dying colonial government.

There are signs that the Hong Kong media may still flourish in the face of tighter controls. The growth of the Internet means that Peking will find it difficult to crack down on the free flow of information.

And despite concerns about Hong Kong Chinese journalists' safety after the handover, fuelled by the imprisonment of Xi Yang, numbers of students in media studies courses in Hong Kong are, according to the HKJA, "comparatively high". This is in a territory where journalism is considered a relatively low-status profession, and where many students' families have memories of the Cultural Revolution. Mr Lau admits, however, that many of the young students "don't have much conception about the pressure" that may come to bear on them. "There are a certain number of journalists who have resigned or given up their profession," he adds.

The association, he says, remains "very much concerned" about press freedom in Hong Kong after the handover. It has sent letters to, among others, Tung Chee-hwa outlining its concerns and urging that certain principles of press freedom be adhered to. As yet it has received no response.

Jonathan Fenby is more optimistic. Things may change month by month, year by year, or not at all, he says. "Until that changes I'm not going to say that it will change. We're taking things on a day-by-day basis" n