Journalists fear for future under Chinese rule

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The Independent Online
While Western media organisations review their plans for Hong Kong after the 1997 hand-over of power to China, the local press corps is going through its own crisis of confidence. Long known for its vibrancy, openness and aggression, the local media is clearly worried about its fate under rule from Peking.

Yet, surely they have nothing to worry about? China's mini-constitution for the new Hong Kong says: "Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication."

However, even before it comes into force, this unambiguous commitment to press freedom is being regularly undermined by Chinese officials, who demonstrate their inability to appreciate how a free media operates and signal every intention to impose controls.

"Freedom of the press is completely different from stirring up trouble," said Lu Ping, China's most senior official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, at the beginning of the month. There would be no tolerance for those advocating "subversion" or "Hong Kong independence", he insisted.

Last year representatives from the Hong Kong Newspaper Society, a publishers' association, sought assurances of continued press freedom. These were duly delivered but immediately qualified by China's Vice-Premier Qian Qichen, who said he wanted the media to observe three guidelines: first, to promote a "loving China and Hong Kong spirit"; secondly, to confine news reporting to a basis of "fact"; and thirdly, to handle news in an ethical and responsible way.

Most censorship of the media comes on the media bosses' direct instructions. Media ownership is increasingly dominated by a small number of companies who have media interests as part of their wider business interests and, arguably, are keen to see the media outlets serve the wider business interests. At least four major newspapers are owned by such companies, all with extensive business interests in China.

Most of the key media owners are not only averse to upsetting China, but have been signed up as advisers to the Chinese government. Editorials and signed columns increasingly reflect the new party line and there's an upsurge in biased reporting. Prominent democracy activists, such as the leaders of Hong Kong's biggest political party, the Democrats, are given less coverage, while the views of China's supporters are prominently featured.

Those who fail to toe the new line rapidly feel the pressure. Officials from the New China News Agency (Xinhua), which acts as Peking's control centre in the colony, are quick to call up editors and proprietors if they dislike their coverage.

A mere three daily newspapers out of about 20 - Apple Daily, Hong Kong Economic Journal and Mad Dog Daily - remain at true arm's length from the incoming administration.