press freedom when China takes over the colony in 1997
THE SHORT-TERM prospects appear bleak for a continued free press in Hong Kong when China takes over the colony in 1997, a panel of Hong Kong journalists fears.
But a future change in Chinese leadership may restore Hong Kong to a democratic society, they added at the recent Asian American Journalists Association conference in Honolulu.
Still, the outlook is far from bright, said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, associate editor of the South China Morning Post and a Beijing correspondent for several years.
"In China's idea of glasnost, the last thing they want to see free is the media," he observed. "They are fearful of lifting media controls."
Wo-Lap Lam expressed doubt that the Chinese government will close any Hong Kong media outlet, but speculated: "It could apply enough pressure to so-called unfriendly media to force them out of business. We hope for a change in the long-term but prospects for a free press are now quite bleak."
Similar concerns were voiced by Daisy Li Yuet-wah, vice chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and assignment editor for Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper noted for its critical reporting of Communist China.
Li described herself as a "long-term optimist," but added that a recent HKJA survey of its 650 members revealed a great deal of pessimism about 1997. Ninety percent of the respondents expressed uncertainty about whether they would work as journalists under a Chinese government. Some, she said, flatly stated they were getting out of the field.
Eighty-four percent expected press freedom to decrease over the next three years. Even more worrisome, the panelist went on, is that there already is evidence of self-censorship among Hong Kong media to avoid offending China's government.
"And it's getting worse," said Li, a leading Hong Kong crusader for the preservation of a free press.
She referred to a 1995 HKJA report titled "Broken Promise," which declared: " . . . self-censorship continues to eat into the fabric of freedom of expression in Hong Kong . . . it is likely that its practice . . . will become more sophisticated and subtle as those who are consciously engaged in self-censorship attempt to cover their tracks more thoroughly."
The report ticked off examples of what it perceived as self-censorship in Hong Kong: Two television stations declined to air a BBC documentary on organ transplants in China. The popular cartoon strip, "The World of Lily Wong," was dropped from the South China Morning Post after it depicted a character being sentenced to death after agreeing with an official that Chinese premier Li Peng is a "fascist murderous dog."
(Morning Post editor David Armstrong said the decision to cut the strip was "purely financial.")
The controversial talk show, News Tease, went off the air in December 1994 because some viewers suggested one of its hosts was too critical of Beijing.
The HKJA report also accused the Hong Kong administration of not moving to amend current British laws which "threaten freedom of expression."
A third panelist, Jesse Wong, bureau chief for the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, said that finding an HK journalist who is optimistic about the 1997 transition "is equivalent to the man-bites-dog story."
Such fear is understandable, Wong said, in view of Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen's statement that the Hong Kong press should be free, but opined it should also be pro-Hong Kong and patriotic.
However, Wong, a Canadian citizen, contended that more important than what China will do about Hong Kong newspapers is what will local journalists "try to do for themselves."
Saying "the future is not a closed book," he asked: "Will they surrender or will they brave the odds?"
For Western journalists with their heritage of a free press, the answer would be easy, he observed.
"But in Asia," he noted, "there isn't an established tradition for living or dying for freedom. These words by some people would seem naive or impractical."
As an example, he recalled the conviction of a Straits Times editor and others under Singapore's Official Secrets Act for publishing a leaked economic statistic.
"There wasn't a great deal of outrage," Wong noted. "The press reported the case without comment. The defendants quietly accepted the guilty verdict and were fined. They could have been sentenced to prison terms."
Drawing a possible parallel, Wong commented that "The Hong Kong press hasn't much of a track record. Under the British, it has had freedom without having to struggle for it."
The future of Hong Kong journalism, Wong maintained, "depends on a lot of people like Daisy Li, who spend a lot of time spreading the word about press freedom."
Wong also urged audience members to keep the issue of Hong Kong press freedom alive by writing about it in their publications and even going to work in Hong Kong to circulate their convictions on the need for a free press. The issue of a free press in Asia was debated on another panel, "Asian Values and the the Role of the Media in Society." However, the discussion left considerable doubt as to whether there is an overarching "Asian value" among the region's press.
Bob Ng, associate editor of the Straits Times, defended his government's authoritarian approach to the media, yet claiming that Singapore "is an open society with free-flowing information." More than 4,500 publications from all over the world circulate in the city-state, he said.
Comparing Western journalism to that of Singapore, Ng said the two "operate from different starting positions." In the West, he explained, the media prides itself on its adversarial stance toward government while in his country, "the press is generally regarded and regards itself as a key institution in society, one of whose primary roles is to promote the country's interests in tandem with the other pillars of the establishment."
The Singapore press, he said, believes that being adversarial "does more harm than good to the society." Consensus, not conflict, is the core value of the Straits Times, he asserted.
In response to audience questions about the Singapore government's libel suit against the International Herald Tribune, which was fined over $900,000, and other measures against the foreign press, Ng said the government "has the right of reply" to what it deems libelous, pointing out that Singapore's libel laws derive from the British, whose colony it once was.
The press in Thailand takes quite another approach to government ? one that is feisty and irreverent ? according to Paisal Sricharatchanya, managing director of the Siam Post in Bangkok. "We usually give a new government a three-month honeymoon, but the present government is having no honeymoon," he related. The government he said, should have come in "equipped and prepared to govern and it wasn't."
The Thailand press, Sricharatchanya said, has been evolving to the point where it no longer feels a duty "to protect the educated and the affluent." He lauded the Western press as a role model for the change but he also castigated Western media for what he termed its emphasis on such negative aspects of his country as prostitution and child labor.
"Write the negative things but provide some balance," he pleaded.
"The South Korean press, likewise, has attained freedom but has not yet learned what to do with it," observed Shim Jae Moon, Seoul bureau chief for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
"Its slowness in understanding its function is allowing the government to co-opt its role in determining public issues and agenda," Shim commented.
The nation's media, he said, can boast state-of-the-art equipment, "however, the quality of reporting and analysis falls short."
He called the electronic media's content "abysmal," but little kinder to the print press, charging it with "reporting of minutiae at the expense of interpretive reporting and analysis."
One cause of the condition, he suggested, is that since South Korea emerged from years of authoritarian regimes, media has come under the control of family-owned conglomerates, using the new democracy to build profits, rather than quality media.
By: M.L. Stein Panel examines the possibilities of continuing