Hong Kong handover: News-stands are closed in police clampdown

News-stands in the streets near Hong Kong's Convention Centre, where the handover ceremonies were taking place, were shut down by the police during the five-day period set aside to mark the event.

The police claim that the clamp-down on newspaper sales is part of a routine crackdown on illegal hawkers. However, licensed news-stands have also been shut down. In addition, hawkers selling newspapers and magazines in the nearby Causeway Bay area have been requested by the police to place controversial political publications either under the counter, or in less prominent positions.

Hawkers were told that the closure was prompted by fears that they would display sensitive publications which might offend guests participating in the handover events. This unprecedented closure of news-stands prompted the editor of a China-watching magazine to say: "It sends a very worrying message if the police are already preventing the sale or even display of publications which may be offensive to people taking part in official events."

The shut down has been conducted beneath a veil of secrecy and began before the handover ceremonies even started. It appears to be part of a process of placing a ring of steel around the convention centre, both for purposes of security and to ensure that the Chinese government participants are not aware of any protests or any form of activity which can be regarded as critical of the new government.

Aside from attempts to keep newspapers off the streets around the convention centre, the impression of an early start for press censorship was reinforced on Sunday night when both Hong Kong television stations were accused of refusing to cover a protest rally organised by the Democratic Party, Hong Kong's largest party. The party says that a diminishing number of their events have been receiving television coverage. However, the Sunday night demonstration was well covered by foreign television stations.

As if to prove a point the television stations also declined to cover last week's launch of a report on freedom of expression in Hong Kong compiled by the Journalists' Association and the Article 19 anti-censorship pressure group. Reports of this kind used to be well reported by the electronic media which had a healthy appetite for press freedom stories. Carol Lai, the association's chairwoman, said the Hong Kong media was facing a crucial test in the coming weeks. She was unable to be optimistic about the outcome.

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