Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor

How Did YOu Report after the Handover?

Did the press have to toe the China line after July 1 or had they been doing it all along? A roundtable met at the Foreign Correspondents' Club to analyse journalism in the new era. [Re-printed by permission of "the Correspondent"]

It's business as usual in post-Handover Hong Kong. But if things are fine for business, what about for journalism?

On the fringes of the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund meetings the International Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based pressure group which monitors press freedom around the world, presented a report on the Hong Kong media after the handover, Freedom Under the Dragon: Can Hong Kong's Press Still Breathe Free?

A roundtable discussion was held in the Club dining room to examine the issues with representatives of the CPJ and members of the local and the overseas media, moderated by the President, Keith Richburg.

William Orme, the CPJ's executive director, was quick to point out that most of the people in the room were likely to know more about the workings of the Hong Kong than he was. He let his colleague, A. Lin Neumann, a veteran correspondent in the region and the CPJ's Asia programme coordinator, who wrote the report, outline the committee's views.

"One particular concern that we have," Neumann said, "is for the future of Hong Kong - not as a centre of English-language media for East Asia because the English-language media can look after itself at the end of the day but the future of Hong Kong as a centre for reporting for 50 million or more Chinese speakers outside China itself and Hong Kong that rely on Hong Kong as a centre of reporting about China and the rest of the world."

He pointed out concerns about self-cencorship and individual incidents such as the failure of Next Media Group to find an investment bank to sponsor its initial public offering.

However, Neumann said: "We acknowledge, gratefully so, that there has been no overt action taken against the media in Hong Kong, either the English-language or Chinese-language media. We also recognise it is very early in the process."

Hong Kong is now the financial capital of China and the window through information about Chinese markets circulates to the West and the rest of Asia, Neumann said. Underlining the city's role as the information capital of Southeast Asia, he recalled how that when he covered the Philippines under Marcos Hong Kong was important place to meet contacts where the restrictions of the regime would not be felt. "You could breathe easier" he said. "It is a pleasant fact that there is still an aspect of freedom in Hong Kong."

Neumann highlighted the press's role in rooting out corruption. "As China seeks to open its markets, the role that the Hong Kong press will be vital," he said.

Dr Jonathan Mirsky, East Asia editor of The Times of London, made a confession. "I did think it was going to worse", he admitted. But he believed he had not exaggerated the fears for press freedom that correspondents like himself felt before the Handover.

In April Mirsky had asked Tung Chee-hwa, then Chief Executive designate, how his working life would be on July 2 and had been alarmed by the response. "He said 'why don't you wait and see'. I said I was a very impatient man, why don't you tell me now? He said: 'Read Article 23'."

That article of the Basic Law covers treason and sedition. And Mirsky was alarmed. However, since the handover, Mirsky had written articles for the Hong Kong Economic Times on Wei Jingsheng and Zhao Ziyang, without fear or favour.

Nevertheless, Mirsky was damning about most of the Chinese-language press. "Whatever changed in the press happened two years ago and finished a year ago," he said.

The papers were careful about how they reported on China. In fact, he said, they were useless at it now. "I used to be a regular reader of Ming Pao. I wouldn't bother to buy it anymore."

But he added: "The papers are very good on the things that Mr. Tung says he's interested in. They are real issues: housing, corruption, education, health and the state of the harbour. They are forthright and do what papers ought to do."

The two English-language papers showed no signs of difference, he maintained. Although the Hong Kong Standard might see itself as a patriotic paper it still ran plenty of things that Beijing would not like.

Mirsky had two other complaints: that the Hong Kong Government had decided to have no truck with foreign correspondents and that the police's treatment of the press during the demonstrations at the World Bank/IMF meetings was shameful and not a good augury for the future.

For Liu Kin-ming, opinion page editor of the Economic Times and vice-chairperson of the Journalists' Association, it had seemed a calm transition but it was too early to tell what the effect of the handover had been on the press. "We still have 597 months to go," he said of the life of the Special Administrative Region.

Some things had cheered him though. "The NCNA has cancelled the post of spokesman," Liu said. "The gentleman who used to come everyday and give us loads of noise pollution - he was gone. So we don't have to endure that garbage," he explained.

"I always believed July 1 1997 was only a symbolic day. The handover happened a long time ago. The change took place long ago," Liu said. "Wait until next May until the first legislature is elected and they will enact legislation on Article 23."

For Terry Cheng, editor of the Hong Kong Standard, the post-handover months had been "so far, so good". "But I agree it is still too early to make a firm conclusion and I also agree that there are a lot of undercurrents," Cheng said. He said the change to Chinese sovereignty had been a long process of about 10 years.

From the floor Jonathan Braude of the South China Morning Post said that the foreign press was bound to reduce its numbers in Hong Kong. Lin Neumann replied that the CPJ would continue to monitor the situation even if it was not on the front pages although journalists had to band together to see that any incidents were publicised. However, he said: "The foreign press is a notoriously unreliable guarantor of anything."

William Orme said: "I would be really surprised if Hong Kong did not become even more attractive for Western media because of reporting on China. It would seem to be a more efficient place to cover the China story." He cited the growth of economic journalism which had a vested interest in the Hong Kong story.

Returning to Jonathan Mirsky's point about the handling of the press during that week's demonstrations, Ilaria Maria Sala of the Spanish agency EFI recounted her treatment at the hands of the police. "I went to the Monday demo," she said. "There was an amazing ratio of police to demonstrators."

Despite her accreditation for the meetings she was told to register again to cover the protests. When she left and returned to the allotted area she was physically prevented from reaching the press area and told to register again. The officer concerned refused to give their names and numbers. Only the presence of several TV crews who began to take an interest in her plight made the officers back off.

She added that the next day: "One of the officers who had harassed me the day before made sure that he inadvertently hit me with a crush barrier."

Terry Cheng agreed that the police had been excessive in their handling of the protests. Jonathan Mirsky said Chinese leaders don't deal with the press. He recalled how a British member of the Joint Liaison Group had told him the Chinese side had insisted: "Our leader don't want to see or hear any demonstrators."

Terry Nealon of RTHK contrasted Sir Percy Cradock's comment about Chris Patten being the incredible shrinking governor with Jonathan Mirsky's about the current administration being the incredible shrinking government.

Nealon said: "The main reason why we are not able to get the flow of information we are used to from the government...is because of our incredible shrinking Legco." The absence of James To, Martin Lee, Christine Loh and Margaret Ng had had a real effect. "The loss of that Legislative Council was possibly much more important than we realised before," Nealon said, adding that he had seen no change in the atmosphere at RTHK since the handover.

In response to a question from Hedley Thomas of the South China Morning Post about foreign correspondent's fears about restraints on the press, Jonathan Mirsky cited the SCMP's publication of Wei Jingsheng's letter. "On that day something happened at the Post and it went back to being a real newspaper again," he said.

On the restrictions placed on Hong Kong reporters in China, Liu Kin-ming described how the mainland felt Hong Kong had become a base for subversion since the Tiananmen Square massacre. This had resulted in the jailing of a Ming Pao reporter.

"The case of Xi Yang certainly sent us a very, very clear message: 'Don't you dare intervene in areas we don't want you to otherwise you will know where you'll end up'," Liu said.

"And it's not just political news," Liu added. "Mr. Xi was imprisoned because he was digging in financial data and interest rates. The message has been very clear."

The Correspondent October 1997

1998 (c) Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor