Press freedom should
not be undermined

From a British colony to a special administrative region, there has always been something about Hong Kong that invites threats to press freedom.
During the ’20s and ’30s, the British government set up a news censorship body. Among the concerns were anti-imperialist publications. Later, in the ’50s, press expressions of patriotism towards the Chinese government were subject to restrictions and discriminated against by the British government. It sued Ta Kung Pao for publishing an anti-imperialist article targeted at the British government. It faced a six-month ban on publication, but the ban was not carried out after the Chinese government openly objected to it.
Press freedom in Hong Kong seemed mostly assured when former Governor Chris Patten warned in 1997, “Self-censorship or censorship at the news editor’s desk is, I think, probably more of a realistic threat in tomorrow’s world than handcuffs and barred windows.”
True enough, China – in fear of subversion from Hong Kong – is anxious to limit the scope of freedom of expression. The media have proved to be patriotic and moderate on issues sensitive to China; otherwise, reporters will get snapped at by Jiang Zemin. On September 24, the HKSAR government published proposals to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, with the aim of enacting the relevant legislation by July 2003.
Journalists are particularly disturbed by the article’s reference to seditious publications, which has a proposed definition so broad that even local university librarians have voiced the worry that much of what is on their library shelves could be deemed seditious.
Undoubtedly, the media are powerful, which is one reason why it is so frequently politically or socially harassed. Media that enjoy freedom make critical opinions and analytical information readily available to the public. On the bright side, they provide a forum for discussion and exposes iniquity. Theoretically, they can also jeopardize society and cause social or political unrest if they carry untrue and biased information — and unethical information, too. Eastweek magazine was widely condemned for publishing a nude photo of a female celebrity who had been taken hostage, even though that really boosted its sales.
When things like that happen, the question of why a news censorship department should never exist is raised.
Similarly, Americans are aware of the consequences to firearms possession, notably the large number of crimes related to the misuse of personal firearms — the Virginia snipers, for example. There is strong opinion against the right to bear arms, for sure, but there is still one good reason defeating it all. It is in the U.S. Constitution: The right of citizens to bear arms is a guarantee against arbitrary government, a safeguard against possible tyranny, which, although it appears remote, is always possible.
By the same reasoning, the fourth estate can be manipulated to unjustified results. It even seems that censorship is a convenient solution: If news were censored, the Eastweek incident probably would never have happened. However, the fourth estate is named because it can monitor governmental and organizational actions and policies in the public interest. Even though freedom can cause unwanted results, because news serves the public, the public can regulate the press, if necessary. The publication activities of Eastweek were stopped by public pressure. But if this freedom is taken, information will easily be restricted from people. Hong Kong citizens can be easily manipulated.
The pen is as powerful as the sword. Even so, news cannot produce public opinion. Public opinion produces news. Freedom is irreplaceable and must be protected at all costs.

Angela Lai
Managing Editor