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Sunday, June 24, 2007

SELF-CENSORSHIP: China has detained Hong Kong reporters on the mainland, while at the same time urging media barons to avoid controversial subjects

Taipei Times:By Max Hirsch; Sunday, Jun 24, 2007, Page 3

For Epoch Times reporter Cheryl Ng in Hong Kong, the steady decline in media freedom in her hometown was an abstract threat until four thugs showed her its personal, sharp-cut reality one night last February.

Armed with hammers, the gang stormed into Ng's office as her newspaper was preparing to go to press.

"They were looking for something," Ng said. "They were fast."

As seven employees watched in terror, the men smashed a hard drive containing a design layout, temporarily crippling the Falun Gong-linked newspaper, she said.

"They weren't trying to wipe us out," she said at a Taipei forum held to address Hong Kong's press freedom 10 years after the former British colony returned to China. "That would've been too obvious."

The attack, media experts say, is a violent example in a litany of clampdowns and control of Hong Kong press by Beijing, or its thugs. The ensuing erosion of freedom in the former British colony, they say, contains lessons for Taiwan amid Beijing's push to bring the nation into its fold under the same system it uses to rule Hong Kong -- "one country, two systems."

"Since China wants to rule you under [that system], you could learn from our experiences," said Woo Lai Wan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

"For the first two years after returning to China rule," Woo said, "everything was fine."

In 1999, however, then Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) began scolding Hong Kong media for sympathizing with Taiwan, Woo said.

Subtle changes in wording began to happen, such as references to President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) quietly morphing from Taiwanese "president" to "leader," she said.

"The message from Beijing was clear -- ultimate power is theirs," Woo said.

Beijing's "muzzling" of Hong Kong media includes redirecting their scrutiny from the Chinese government to that of Hong Kong, political commentator Paul Lin (林保華) said.

"The media there can pan Hong Kong authorities, but not China; they can slam corruption, but not the party," Lin said. "Look at Hong Kong, look at Tibet, and then think about Taiwan."

The 2003 SARS epidemic underscored the consequences of Beijing's information lockdown for Hong Kong, where 300 people died of the virus, said Tung Li-wen (董立文), deputy director of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

Enraged by Beijing's silence on SARS, which led to its spread beyond China, half a million protestors took to the streets of Hong Kong that year.

"The protest really scared China," Tung said.

Beijing-backed legislation in Hong Kong's parliament banning "leaking state secrets" was then shelved, while China sought subtler ways to influence media there, experts say.

While periodically detaining Hong Kong reporters in China "to scare the territory's media," China has also courted Hong Kong media barons to encourage self-censorship, said Chen Hsiao-yi (陳曉宜), director of the Taiwan Association of Journalists.

"Beijing's message to Hong Kong reporters is, `Be obedient or go behind bars,'" Chen said.

When asked for her advice for Taiwan should the pan-blue camp mull unifying with Beijing under the "two-systems" system, Woo said: "Don't back down."

"If you back down, you'll end up losing all your press freedoms," she said.

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