Sun, Jan 11, 2004 - Page 8 News List

On freedom of HK press, not all of the news is bad

By Lee Chin-chuan 李金銓

On the eve of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, I published an article entitled Twelve questions about Hong Kong's press freedoms. It has now been more than six years since the handover. Looking back on those questions and considering the current situation, I can't help answering eight of the questions myself.

1. The people of Hong Kong were very concerned about freedom of the press before the handover. Hong Kong's economy has declined, making media operations difficult. This is a result of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, as well as the flawed policies of Tung Chee-hwa (董建華) -- the chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Vulgar media outlets have monopolized the market in an atmosphere of vicious competition. Sensational news stories about sex, violence and drugs have become mainstream as the media's taste goes downhill.

2. Both ownership changes and the media's tendency towards self-censorship are worrisome. But the media are often able to confront political interference with "market rationality" (the public's right to know). Considering that the HKSAR government is biased, that the Legislative and District Councils do not follow public opinion and that the democratic consultation mechanism is ineffective, people could rely only on the media to help them fight the legislation process of Article 23 of the Basic Law (基本法) and to uncover the SARS outbreak. Media can sometimes be noisy and unpleasant, but without them, Hong Kong might sink deeper.

3. Beijing has cooled down since the handover and seldom publicly criticizes Hong Kong's media. Still, the HKSAR government has supported left-wing newspapers and pro-China forces and has oppressed local radio and democratic forces. Hence, public opinion has gradually softened toward Beijing while it has become more critical of Tung.

4. The Chinese central government wanted the HKSAR government to enact the Article 23 legislation (the "subversion" law) by itself. Surprisingly, Tung and Secretary for Security Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀) colluded with the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (民建聯), wishing to take credit for the legislation. These people forcibly and mistakenly tried to push the article through. About 500,000 people took to the streets to protest the legislation.

5. I predicted in 1994 that Hong Kong's press freedoms would decline but that transparency would remain high. Today,owners of the major media conglomerates have massive business interests in China. The opinions of their media outlets often waver in the face of conflicts of interest. Discussion of either Taiwanese independence and the Falun Gong (法輪功) sect is taboo.

6. The Hong Kong media are no longer as crazy as they were before the handover. Whether the handover of Hong Kong was good or bad, the whole matter settled down after a while. In any case, the overall situation after the return has not been as bad as people had imagined it would be.

7. Some newspaper editorialists hesitate to speak openly but in general the content is diverse and open. What Hong Kong longs for is democratic politics and a prosperous economy, not stereotyped nationalism. The trend of publishing patriotic editorials has faded since the handover.

8. The quality of Hong Kong's journalists is not high but their professional spirit is outstanding. Without their effort, more SARS patients in Hong Kong and China might have died as their governments covered up the truth.

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