Far Eastern Economic Review: Soft on China

Critics say that Beijing is succeeding in its efforts to influence the Hong Kong media

By David Lague/HONG KONG

Issue cover-dated May 23, 2002

THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST is sometimes likened to a canary in a coal mine that serves as an early warning of any threat to Hong Kong's freedoms. So the April 29 firing of Jasper Becker, the Hong Kong daily's probing China correspondent, immediately gave rise to fears that the canary might be losing its voice. The forced departure of Becker, probably the English-language Post's only internationally acclaimed journalist following the acrimonious resignation of China-watcher Willy Lam in 2000, has sparked a public brawl between the angry correspondent and the paper's editor, Thomas Abraham.

Becker claims that under the ownership of Malaysian-born tycoon Robert Kuok, who has extensive investments on the mainland, the Post is muzzling coverage critical of China. Abraham defends his editorial independence and insists the journalist was dismissed for insubordination.

One thing is certain: The Post's China coverage is now going to be under closer scrutiny at a time when there are fears that pressure from pro-Beijing forces, self-censorship and the prospect of new sedition laws pose a threat to Hong Kong's free-wheeling media.
While the Post might be a barometer for Hong Kong expatriates and the international community, for most of the city's 6.8 million residents it is the boisterous Chinese-language media, where more than 40 dailies and weeklies jostle for market share alongside rival radio and television news services, that will become the real battleground in any fight to preserve editorial independence and freedom of expression.

So far, there is little hard evidence that pro-Beijing forces or self-censorship are exerting decisive influence. Some observers simply say that they sense some outlets are less aggressive than they have been in the past. Others believe that media owners with big investments on the mainland are gradually softening the tone of critical coverage. "It's a silent transformation," says political commentator and former journalist Kitty Poon. "I think it is a very dangerous development in Hong Kong." The change is being taken seriously. In March, the United States State Department said in its annual human-rights report that there was evidence of self-censorship in the reporting of mainland-related news in Hong Kong.

Certainly, Beijing is active in trying to influence the local media. The pro-Beijing business lobby and mainland officials in Hong Kong work hard to get their views across with local journalists and editors. Still, many outlets like the popular mass-circulation Apple Daily newspaper pull no punches when it comes to covering the mainland's corruption, nepotism and widespread economic and social problems, offering a degree of criticism unavailable on the mainland. The Hong Kong government-funded Radio Television Hong Kong also continues to report critically on mainland and local politics in its Chinese and English language services despite considerable pressure from pro-Beijing groups for the public broadcaster to become an official mouthpiece.

Media analysts also note that it will be difficult to stifle freedom of expression while Hong Kong retains a competitive media market. Outlets playing down important news are easily trumped by their local and foreign competitors.

Much will also depend on the determination of local journalists to preserve press freedoms. Hong Kong's former chief secretary, Anson Chan, repeatedly urged the press to resist self-censorship before her retirement last year. What is perhaps more worrying for journalists is a growing suspicion that the Hong Kong government, under pressure from Beijing, is poised to enact new sedition laws that could become a tool for curbing coverage critical of mainland affairs. The fear is that laws covering sedition, secession, treason and the theft of state secrets could mean that coverage of Taiwan's independence movement or even leaked mainland economic data could become illegal.
In a May 5 letter to Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong Journalists Association said these laws were unnecessary. "We would urge you not to rush into enactment of these laws which could have a detrimental effect on freedom of expression," the association said.

In the meantime, the challenge for the Post is to find a replacement for Becker, who made his name through detailed coverage of the sweeping social and economic upheavals now under way in China. Readers will be looking for more of the same to be satisfied Hong Kong's canary is in full song.

For the second time since March, Falun Gong activists broke into a cable-television system of a Chinese city and broadcast a videotape criticizing the government crackdown on the group. The broadcast broke into regular programming in Harbin on April 21, residents said.

A congressional commission recommended that the United States should be doing more to stem the import of goods made in China by prison labour. The U.S.-China Security Review Commission in a report in May recommended that importers, rather than the U.S. Customs Service, should provide proof that the goods they buy from China are not produced at prisons or forced labour camps.

In the latest in a series of actions against critics of the government, police in Hong Kong moved to prosecute three democracy activists for demonstrating without a permit. It is the first prosecution under a public-order law adopted after Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. The charges came less than two months before an expected visit by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Police arrested Leung Kwok-hung and charged him with "organizing an unauthorized public assembly" in February. Two other men were charged with helping organize the protest.

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