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    Greater China
     Feb 18, 2009
Hong Kong media tied in red tape
By Augustine Tan

HONG KONG - Just when it seemed mainland China had got used to Hong Kong reporters scrambling all over the country for news stories, Beijing bureaucrats slammed down fresh regulations to curtail this new-found freedom, raising fears of added censorship in this politically sensitive year.

The new rules to restrict Hong Kong reporters' freedom of news coverage were introduced shortly after a confident Chinese government announced that the greater freedom enjoyed by foreign journalists (those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan included) during the Beijing Summer Olympic Games last August would be extended indefinitely. Critics say this is "one step forward, two steps back" in China's progress towards press freedom.

Although Hong Kong now is part of China under the "one country

 

two systems", media in the Special Administrative Region continue to enjoy freedom of the press as before, despite criticisms that many journalists are increasingly practicing self-censorship.

Most Hong Kong reporters are ethnic Chinese who speak the Chinese language and as such could have easy access to society to get news stories. As a result, negative news reports or scandals about China have often been broken by the Hong Kong media. This may explain why the Hong Kong media have been specifically targeted by the new regulations.

For Beijing, this year is a particularly sensitive one politically, with such anniversaries as the failed Tibetan armed uprising, the emergence of the Falungong and the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown approaching.

With immediate effect from February 6, Hong Kong journalists covering the mainland must be accredited to the All-China Journalists Association through the liaison office of the central government in Hong Kong, Beijing's representative office in the territory. They must also first secure the consent of the individual or organization to be interviewed.

These rules were in place for many years but had generally been ignored by the Hong Kong media, with the unstated acquiescence of mainland officials. Even reporters of the Chinese-language Apple Daily, the most unwelcome journalists on the mainland because of the newspaper's unreserved critical stance on China, have usually been left alone when poking around for news though, undoubtedly, kept under surveillance.

In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, however, all restrictions were officially lifted for Hong Kong and Macau journalists and other foreign correspondents. With little pressure from outside, Beijing continued to allow free movement and reporting after the sporting event.

The Games were a huge success and China emerged more confident, its people more united. Even Hong Kong people have become more noticeably patriotic during the past year.

Before the Games, Sichuan province was rocked by a massive earthquake in May that killed close to 100,000 people and injured almost as many. The unhindered coverage by the Hong Kong media led to the donation of some US$1 billion to the victims from Hong Kong people, government and corporations.

The magnificent coverage of both the agony and the ecstasy of China, and the patriotic fervor raised, has never been fully acknowledged by Beijing. Nevertheless, when the pre-Olympics restrictions were not reinstituted, there was general agreement that Beijing had become more relaxed and more assured of its status as an emerging global power.

"It was not just the success of the Olympics alone. In the current global economic crisis, Beijing has been trying to re-establish itself as a great nation ... then they issue restrictions like these. It just raises question marks about just how confident these Beijing officials really are in the way they run the country," said Mak Yin Ting, a former chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Mak added: "To be fair to these officials, the months ahead are going to be very sensitive for Beijing. This is a significant year for anniversaries ... they have plenty to worry about. I don't believe anything significant will happen. But I think some officials want to make certain they will be properly covered up if something does go wrong."

What can possibly go wrong? Mak cannot think of anything. "Look, the Hong Kong media scene is very tame," she said.

The local representative of the International Federation of Journalists, Woo Lai Wan, shared this view. "It is very unbecoming of a state aspiring to be a major global power to be so frightened of its own shadow," she said.

Most Hong Kong journalists who have been going into China for news say they will simply ignore the regulations. One of them said: "There's basically nothing new. These rules were there before the Olympics and we ignored them. We will ignore them again. In the past all the officials closed an eye. I am sure they will do it again ... until something goes very wrong.

"Even when something goes wrong you get a slap on the wrist. What is the most recent case of the mainland taking action against a Hong Kong journalist? The Ching Cheong case. That has nothing to do with news coverage. They claimed it was a spy case. So that has nothing to do with reporting. "China has always been like this ... two steps forward, one step back. Maybe Liao Hui [head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office] will think of something else in the next few weeks. He will retire soon, so he wants to play it very safe. He wants an honorable exit, " Woo said.

The ruling appears to have caught central government representatives based in Hong Kong off guard. Some are resorting to verbal contortions to explain the situation. Denying "backsliding" from previous arrangements, one official explained that the new rules were an attempt to "weed out fake journalists", though in reality, all the "fake journalists" who have ever been caught have all been mainland people, as opposed to Hong Kong reporters.

Another official described the new restrictions as an effort "to improve reporters' working conditions. We never meant to backslide from previous arrangements." Even Gao Siren, the liaison office director, insisted last week that the new rules would "help speed up the processing system".

And while Chinese officials pledge the new regulations are to improve management of news coverage in China by Hong Kong journalists, they don't seem ready to implement them. One day after the new regulations were unveiled, the Chinese-language Ming Pao daily filled in an application with the liaison office for an interview on the mainland and a spokesman said it had yet to work out details for their implementation. When asked whether the liaison office would deal with applications for China news coverage during weekends or public holidays if there was breaking news, the spokesman said, "I cannot answer this question right now. We need to discuss this."

When asked what would happen if a Hong Kong reporter was found doing an interview on the mainland without a permit, a spokesperson for the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing said, "It depends on whether he or she breaks the law."

So it seems that the new regulations are simply complicating the "processing system" instead of improving it.

Augustine Tan is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

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