China fails to see the funny side

Hong Kong/ fears for press freedom

IT IS NOT hard to see why Chinese officials would have been pleased to hear that the South China Morning Post had axed its "World of Lily Wong" cartoon strip. Few Chinese politicians or bureaucrats are known for their sense of humour. Larry Feign's cartoons about selling the organs of executed prisoners in Chinese jails and jokes about Premier Li Peng must have strained their patience to the limit.

But the axing of the strip immediately set off alarm bells about press freedom and the growing tendency for self-censorship ahead of the Chinese takeover in 1997.

David Armstrong, the Post's editor-in-chief, insisted that there was no question of political pressure or self-censorship. He said it was purely an economic decision related to an overall cut in editorial costs. Indeed, swingeing staff cuts were made immediately afterwards.

But when news of the strip's demise became known early last week, few people believed Mr Armstrong. Prominent legislators joined the queue of those expressing concern. This was not the first time they had seen what appeared to be self-censorship dressed up in other clothing.

Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the Observer, who had just arrived on the premises to become editor of the Post, still seems a bit dazed to have come into a new job immediately surrounded by controversy. "I know as a journalist one disbelieves most of what one is told, but there is a very good budgetary reason for this," he said.

Possibly the most blatant case of self-censorship occurred at the end of last year, when the colony's number two commercial television station, ATV, pulled its most popular current affairs programme, News Tease, which featured Wong Yuk-man, an outspoken journalist who likes to call a spade a spade and refers to China's leaders as "dictators".

Virtually nobody believed the station was acting without pressure. Nor did they accept the explanation of ATV's rival TVB that a BBC documentary about the private life of Mao-Tsetung was not shown because there was no suitable slot in the schedules.

Press freedom is guaranteed in the Basic Law, or mini-constitution, for the new Hong Kong after 1997. The trouble is that the guarantee has come from China - where 20 journalists are currently serving jail sentences, including Xi Yang, a Hong Kong- based reporter, arrested two years ago for "stealing state secrets". He had written stories about the price of gold which would not have raised an eyebrow elsewhere in the world.

The signs of change are growing more clear by the day. Practically all the Chinese language dailies, with two exceptions, are now firmly lined up with the Chinese government in opposing Governor Chris Patten's modest democratic reforms.

Even the Ming Pao Daily News, a paper with a strong reputation for independence, seems to be swaying with the wind. On 1 January it carried an editorial calling for world affairs to be looked at "objectively, independently and fairly" - that is, through a Chinese prism. It would not have been out of place in Peking's People's Daily. Ming Pao is making efforts to get into the Chinese publishing and television market, as is the Sing Tao group, controlled by Sally Aw, once a supporter of the Taiwan government and therefore beyond the pale as far as China was concerned. Last week she reassured readers of her newspapers that there would be no changes to editorial freedom after 1997.

She may be right. Many journalists, particularly those active in the Hong Kong Journalists Association, fear that the changes will take place well before then.

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