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World: Experts Concerned Over Hong Kong's Press Freedom

Hong Kong, 1 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - A panel of media experts today expressed varying degrees of concern that Hong Kong's media, considered the freest in Asia, will decline under Chinese rule.

The panel, speaking at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents Club, noted repeated signs of a lessening in Hong Kong's media freedom in recent years in the runup to the return to Chinese sovereignty.

Today's discussion was sponsored by the Freedom Forum, a private U.S. organization dedicated to monitoring press freedoms.

Keith Richburg, the Hong Kong bureau chief for the Washington Post, said transparency and openness in dealing with the media is such a part of Hong Kong's culture that he's confident many aspects of it will remain. But he said he's concerned about reduced access to information in the new administration governing the special administrative region, as Hong Kong is now known. Richburg said he's already seen signs that the region's chief executive, Tung Chee-Hwa will handle decision-making through a closed circle of advisers rather than at a more open departmental level, which was typical of the British administration that preceded it.

Another panelist, Liu Kin-ming, the opinion page editor for the Chinese language Hong Kong Economic Times, expressed greater alarm about the prospects for press freedom. He said he left his position as an editor at Sing Tao Daily because of the censorship practiced there. He said of the staff there, "anything they see as mildly critical of China, they're going to kill."

Liu also called self-censorship the greatest threat to press freedom in Hong Kong. In recent surveys, a majority of Hong Kong journalists have said that they have been practicing self-censorship on stories about China.

Joseph Lian Yi-zheng, the editor of the respected Chinese language business daily, the Hong Kong Economic Journal, said sometimes censorship is a matter of business. He says in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the world, some stories are not written out of fear that an important person or firm will withdraw financial support.

Lian said for journalists now it was a matter of having "the courage to forego economic benefits and keep saying things that are unpleasant for a government to hear."

The notion of self-censorship in regards to China was challenged somewhat by Ernest Martin, a media analyst and director of communications studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. Martin said self-censorship is sometimes confused with the exercising of professional judgment. He said sometimes fear of retaliation from a manager can influence a journalist's professional judgment in choosing what to write.

Lian of the Economic Journal said his paper's tough coverage of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and some economic issues had sharply affected his paper's relations with China. But he said he still hopes his paper will function independently. He said he would not engage in self-censorship, but would also make sure that sourcing on any controversial subjects was thorough.