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Self-censorship restricting Hong Kong's press

December 29, 1998

By Edward Neilan
Special to World

HONG KONG--After the July 1,1997 handover of Hong Kong by Britain to China, it was expected that the attack on press freedom would come directly from Beijing.

As it has turned out, noted after one year and confirmed now after one-and-a-half years, the pressure was more insidious.

Self-censorship, pressure from "upstairs," ultimatums from advertisers, non-cooperation with Hong Kong journalists going into China, increased prosecution of journalists in China, were among the elements.

I had decided on a book title "The Suffocation of Hong Kong: Decline of Press Freedom Since the 1997 Handover" as supported by my research. Nevertheless I had some trepidations as I arrived in Hong Kong recently on one of my frequent visits, thinking some might feel it was too bold. My hesitancy was unfounded.

"That's perfect. That's the real story," said Kin-Min Liu, president of the Hong Kong Journalists' Association, when I told him the working title. "The situation is getting worse and may explode in a few months. Your timing is perfect."

Liu says recent surveys by his group find newsmen want more community involvement in the debate over press ethics. The concept of a press council and new laws on media ethics were rejected as part of a fine side of the wedge of government control.

Liu, who is editor of the opinion page of the Hong Kong Economic Times, has been criticized by authorities for pushing objectivity and criticizing mainland China.

"The spectre of self-censorship is increasing." Liu told me.

On the website of the South China Morning Post, the archive listing of "special reports" fails to mention the issue of self-censorship as something the paper has looked into, although there are glowing chronicles of the late Deng Xiaoping and new chief executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Briton George Adams, whose satirical "NOT The South China Morning Post" website has been a cyberworld thorn in the side of the SCMP since the handover says self-censorship is blatant.

In the December 9, 1998 edition of his online report, Adams wrote under the headline "The Sin of Omission":

"What's this? A report in the South China Morning Post, prominent position of page four basement on a new Chinese-language website devoted to human rights to celebrate fifty years of the Universal Declaration! But hang on. No mention of where the website actually is."

Adams goes on "Obviously Mr. Feng Xiliang, former China Daily editor and SCMP's 'editorial consultant' is becoming something of a crossover artist and his influence now extends into local news... Whenever(SCMP editor) Jonathan Fenby opens his mouth to deny censorship and disinformation, examples like the above, frequently on a daily basis, spring to mind and must be explained. Of course, they never are." In fairness to Fenby and the SCMP, the Post carried reports on the rash of arrests of dissidents in China over the Christmas holidays. But editorial comments on the incidents did not have the rapier sting one might have read in the pre-handover SCMP.

The SCMP, which is arguably Asia's best English-language newspaper, took a hit in 1998 when it announced a US$53 million decline in profits. As part of the fallout, Hong Kong rumors say, editor Fenby has been asked by the management to stop tilting Adams in pubic.

A new face and byline on the scene is that of Robert Keatley, formerly with the Wall Street Journal. His solid commentaries give the SCMP editorial page an added dimension and an American rather than British tilt. There is talk that as Deputy Editor, he may soon ease into the editor's chair.

A sure sign that Hong Kong is feeling the pinch is the organization of the Better Hong Kong Foundation, loaded with "old Hong Kong money" and headed by Chief Executive George Yuen, a former government information officer under the British.

The foundation is basically a public relations agency for Hong Kong, polishing the Special Administrative Region's (SAR's) image.

Yuen is concerned with dropoffs in Japanese tourist numbers and continued reports of ripoffs of visitors from Tokyo an elsewhere by Hong Kong merchants.

"In the old (pre-handover) days," said a longtime businessman-resident, "Hong Kong was the last place in the world that needed a public relations agency to hide its warts."

Edward Neilan ( is a veteran journalist, based in Tokyo, who covers East Asia and writes weekly for World

December 29, 1998

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