Is executive's move end of Hong Kong's media freedom?

HONG KONG's best-known broadcasting executive is off to Tokyo at the end of this month. Not to run a radio or television station, but to become the territory's trade representative in Japan. This apparently bizarre turn of events has raised fears about media freedom in the former British colony, nearly 30 months after it returned to Chinese sovereignty.

Rumours of the departure of the head of Radio Television Hong Kong, Cheung Man-yee, had circulated for more than a year. Her station, modelled on the BBC though it remains a government department, showed its independence this year by its full reporting of the Hong Kong vigil for the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June and by giving airtime to a representative of the breakaway island of Taiwan.

Ms Cheung, aged 53, is a civil servant. If only because of that, she insists that her departure is not the result of political pressure. Officials say the appointment of her like-minded deputy to succeed her is proof that the station's freedom is in no danger. After 13 years in the job, her move to Tokyo is presented as a promotion.

But it has caused concern in media and democratic circles. Martin Lee, leader of the Democrats, Hong Kong's biggest political party, calls it the beginning of the end of freedom of expression. Party colleagues compare it to the internal exile of Soviet dissidents. It is no secret that pro- Peking politicians in Hong Kong have lobbied the chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, to move Ms Cheung over the last two years. One of them said that Mr Tung's response more than a year ago was "slowly, slowly". The chief executive says he can't remember saying any such thing.

In the US and elsewhere, the media is an important test of Hong Kong's freedoms, but pro-Peking circles take a different view. Since Britain's handover in 1997, newspapers have been told by a senior Peking official dealing with Hong Kong that they were creating controversy, and that their role should be to explain the administration's policies. A pro-Peking figure in Hong Kong greeted news of Ms Cheung's departure by hoping RTHK would now transmit "constructive opinions".

Others ask why a station that is part of the government structure puts out critical programmes - ignoring the fact that the funding comes from taxpayers and that democratic parties won 70 per cent of the vote at the last election.

Journalists at the station, on the other hand, regard their independence as a badge of pride. While Ms Cheung held a round of farewell meetings, RTHK's English-language Radio Three channel was promoting a series on freedom of information. As if to emphasise the link with the BBC, where she once worked, Ms Cheung was visiting one of her mentors, the BBC controller in Northern Ireland, when her transfer was announced. On Friday, in one of her last engagements in Hong Kong, she will help to launch a CD of talks by the veteran BBC broadcaster, Anthony Lawrence. The colonisers may have gone two years ago, but the future of media freedom seems inextricably linked with a heritage from the other side of the planet.

n Jonathan Fenby was, until recently, editor of the South China Morning Post and is writing a book about China and Hong Kong