Hong Kong Media Abuzz Over Rights


Nowhere in Asia is the pulse of media freedom monitored with greater scrutiny or worry than in this rich and unique corner of China.

Two recent episodes have raised the level of concern.

The back-to-back and apparently unconnected incidents involved a very public tirade against the Hong Kong media by Chinese President Jiang Zemin in October, followed last month by the resignation of a prominent columnist. Willy Wo-lap Lam of the South China Morning Post, the territory’s largest English-language daily, quit amid claims that he was being muzzled.

Despite the initial controversy caused by the two events, human rights and pro-democracy activists and leading journalists here believe that media freedoms negotiated before China regained control over the territory in 1997 remain largely intact.


But they add that what happened only underscores the need to defend the city’s freedoms.

“These are bad incidents,” said Kin-ming Liu, general manager of Apple Daily, the city’s second-largest Chinese-language newspaper. “They don’t speak well for Hong Kong or for anyone involved, but they are not a shock to the process.”

Added Paul Harris, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor: “They are significant indicators of underlying attitudes, but I don’t see a downward trend in press freedom right now. It’s one more reminder to stay vigilant.”

Indeed, the treatment in the Hong Kong media of Jiang’s Oct. 27 outburst seemed to confirm that the freewheeling nature of news coverage remains intact.

The Chinese president’s reaction to a Hong Kong reporter’s question about the future leadership of the territory quickly escalated from pique to anger to full-blown rage. Jiang’s contorted face was captured in full, unflattering detail in photos on the front pages of local papers.

Editorials defended the local media’s right to question political leaders and berated Jiang in what was described by veteran analysts as the first major personal attack on the Chinese leader by the media here since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control.

In an obvious fence-mending gesture three weeks later, Jiang made an unexpected schedule change at a gathering of Asia-Pacific leaders in Brunei to meet with the Hong Kong media. He took questions calmly and, before departing, asked if the reporters were satisfied.


The departure of journalist Willy Lam as a political columnist and China editor of the South China Morning Post is viewed by some analysts as more worrisome. For them, it raises a danger that is far more subtle and difficult to defend against: self-censorship.

The resignation of Lam, known for his scoops and aggressive reporting about the Chinese leadership, followed a scathing denunciation of his work in a letter to the editor written last summer by the Morning Post’s principal owner, Robert Kuok.

Kuok, a businessman who like many of the city’s influential figures has developed ties with China’s Communist leadership, accused Lam of “absolute exaggeration and fabrication” in a column that described a trip of 30 Hong Kong tycoons--including Kuok--to Beijing earlier this year.

Lam was relieved of his responsibilities as China editor. He subsequently resigned, citing intimidation and frequent efforts by Post editor Robert Keatley to tone down his work.

“It’s one sign of a self-censorship that’s getting worse by the day,” Lam stated. “It’s not a precipitous decline; it’s gradual, but it’s there.”

Keatley described the affair more as a management failure than an act of self-censorship. He defended his paper’s coverage of mainland China as robust, said there were plans to expand it and denied pulling any journalistic punches.


“I don’t feel constrained,” he said. “There’s no subject we can’t tackle.”

For now, at least, advocates of media freedom believe that damage to their cause has been limited. And one overriding factor gives them confidence for the immediate future: China’s political leaders know that freedom of expression and the rule of law provide the competitive edge that draws investment and, with it, new wealth to Hong Kong.

“There is a media-driven, investment-driven thrust for information here which are really just opposite sides of the same coin,” said Michael DeGolyer, who writes a political column for the Hong Kong iMail, an English-language tabloid. “That is hard to tamper with.”