Freewheeling Journalists Fret Over New Rulers

Communist China sends warning to Hong Kong scribes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Radio reporter Mak Yin Ting says that sometimes she has been tempted to quit journalism. The hours are long and salaries are low compared with other opportunities in this busy territory.

And like other journalists here, she has one more reason to question whether hers was a wise career choice: In less than one year, Hong Kong will revert to Communist China, where the concept of freedom of expression is, to say the least, very different from that traditionally enjoyed under the British administration.

Ms. Mak says she has never been tempted to quit, or emigrate, because of the impending handover. "I treasure the freedoms ... and I want to stay and fight for them," she says. Recently elected chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA), Mak will be on the front lines.

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A veteran journalist, Mak says she feels it's important that experienced journalists, like herself, stay since newcomers may more readily adopt any new restrictions.

In theory, there should be relatively few restrictions on what newspapers print since Hong Kong's post-1997 constitution guarantees freedom of the press. But like everything else connected with the July '97 transition, there are anxieties over how these guarantees will be implemented. For example, the same document permits the new government to adopt laws "to safeguard state secrets," which on the mainland are rather loosely interpreted.

A Chinese reporter, Xi Yang, working for the Hong Kong daily Ming Pao was jailed for 12 years in 1994 for stealing state secrets - defined as bank interest rates and gold reserve policy.

The fact that he was put in prison, rather than deported to Hong Kong, was widely seen as a warning to Hong Kong journalists not to become too inquisitive about China's affairs.

This year, several Chinese leaders have made statements that have caused disquiet. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen was quoted in a recent article as saying that reporters should not spread rumors or make personal attacks on Chinese leaders.

"It's a way of the Chinese setting the ground rules," Mak says. "They're telling us that certain things, such as independence for Taiwan or Tibet, are taboo."

Some say the Chinese don't have to set limits; editors and publishers will do that themselves. Many newspaper owners have commercial interests or publishing ambitions on the mainland that they want to protect and may not want to publish anything to irritate Beijing.

The extent to which self-censorship is being practiced even now is a hot topic in local media circles. The HKJA surveyed members and found that 90 percent of respondents believed that self-censorship occurred either frequently or occasionally.

This year, local broadcasters canceled "Return to the Dying Rooms," a powerful British documentary about appalling conditions in Chinese orphanages, that had been attacked by Beijing as being "anti-China." Yet, many newspapers carried graphic reports of orphanage conditions when it was revealed by Human Rights Watch, Asia, a rights organization.

If Communist bureaucrats have difficulties grasping issues of freedom of the press with the independent media, they have even more trouble understanding why a state-owned radio and television station, such as Radio Television Hong Kong, should not serve as their mouthpiece.

Alarm bells sounded earlier this year when the China-appointed Preparatory Committee, charged with managing the handover, requested access to Hong Kong government radio and television. So far, however, they have been limited to making routine public announcements without seeking to change program content.

Mak often travels to China on reporting assignments and understands the strictures her compatriots operate under there, but she also sees encouraging signs. She hopes that Hong Kong's ways will influence China, rather than the other way around. "I've noticed changes in the attitudes of Chinese journalists, which come from interaction with Hong Kong journalists," she says. "They are taking the initiative, asking more questions."

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