Western media jittery as HK deadline looms

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The Independent Online
Fears about the future of Hong Kong under Chinese rule have prompted major Western media organisations to review their operations there. Some leading companies could downgrade their news-gathering and production operations at the first sign of illiberal policies emanating from Peking.

This latest sign of concern about the future of one of Asia's most dynamic economies could increase the chances that Hong Kong will lose its status as a regional centre for trade, finance and - crucially - media companies.

While no media organisation will admit it publicly, most are formulating contingency plans for leaving what has become one of Asia's media centres. One news agency has already done a study to gauge the cost and benefits of leaving Hong Kong, which reverts to Chinese rule next year. It found it could be done with relative ease, though there was no pressing need to do so.

A senior news-agency staff member based in Hong Kong said: "No one on the editorial side has any doubt that things may become difficult here. We all expect that the day will come when we have to consider moving."

Eager to take advantage of the concerns, officials from other regional centres in Asia have been soliciting media organisations, attempting to convince them to relocate. Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and Lee Kuan Yew, the Senior Minister and former prime minister of Singapore, have been in Hong Kong promoting their countries as alternative media centres. Australia also sees itself in the running to assume this role.

"The most worrisome thing for us," said a senior editor from a European company, "is not freedom of speech - our feeling is that won't be an issue until the turn of the century. The big worry is that China does not like Western journalists and that China will be hostile to us and this will be expressed in bureaucratic ways, rather than by frontal attack." He believes this could create considerable difficulties in the ability to hire foreign staff.

Among the colony's main competitive advantages has been its status as a free-flowing centre for information. As a result, major firms such as Reuters, CNN, AFP and the BBC have established key regional news-gathering operations in Hong Kong. For Reuters, the Hong Kong office is more than just a bureau: it is one of three regional centres, with New York and London, that provide global information services for the whole of the Reuters network. Any attempt by Peking to limit the number of foreign journalists in Hong Kong would jeopardise the status of the regional centres, insiders say.

Some media companies say they are not worried. The United States-based CNN television news broadcaster has, for example, just established a centre in Hong Kong.

An executive from an American media company in Hong Kong said that it did not need to devise any contingency plans. "All editors need nowadays is a PC [personal computer] - you can plug it in anywhere. If we had to, we could simply switch to London or New York."

Some things are not so easy to switch. The BBC will soon begin dismantling its transmitter which relays short-wave radio broadcasts mainly to China. It is moving to Thailand. Officially the move is being made to improve reception but unofficially it is acknowledged that political sensitivities are playing a part in this move.

However, the BBC World Service will continue to be relayed on a dedicated channel in Hong Kong said Chu Pui-hing, the assistant director of broadcasting in the colony. "There are no plans to drop it in the near future."

Officially, all the international media organisations are maintaining a public posture of retaining their Hong Kong operations. "For the foreseeable future we will stay in Hong Kong," said Richard Ingham, the Asia-Pacific news editor of Agence France-Presse, which has regional headquarters in the colony. He added: "We trust that the undertakings made to Hong Kong about free speech and the hiring of foreigners will be upheld."