HONG KONG -- U.S. foreign secretary John Kerry sat down Saturday with a group of Chinese bloggers and promised to press the Chinese government to loosen its controls of the internet.
His visit came at a time when China and other Asian governments stand accused of increasing their intervention in the media and reducing freedom of the press.
In its 2014 annual survey published last week, a French non-profit association, Reporters Without Borders, highlighted growing problems for the media in Vietnam, Thailand, Japan and Hong Kong. It also pointed to increasing instances of self-censorship, where reporters, editors or media owners choose not to publish information in order to avoid problems with their superiors or with the authorities.
Also last week, there was outrage in Hong Kong when one of the territory's leading political commentators, and a vocal critic of the territory's current administration, Li Wei-ling was abruptly removed from her job by Commercial Radio.
Only a few weeks earlier, the sacking of the editor of Ming Pao newspaper and his replacement by a blatantly obvious management puppet and affirmed supporter of the Chinese Communist Party provoked protests in the streets of Hong Kong.
RWF, which ranks China in 175th place among the 180 countries it surveys, accused China of hunting down government critics, harassing journalists and bloggers, censoring online content and issuing daily directives to the traditional media as to what they should and should not cover. All in all "a model of censorship and repression," it said.
That model, RWF says, is increasingly being exported within the Asia region, as China's political and economic influence grows. Vietnam is becoming nearly as draconian, it said. In addition to arbitrary arrests of reporters and sham trials Vietnam's ruling party "is waging an all-out offensive against the new-generation internet, which it sees as a dangerous counterweight to the domesticated traditional media."
Previously ranked by RWF as the freest country in Asia (in 2012), Japan is seen as increasingly problematic due to government fences around information on the Fukushima nuclear disaster (notably the restriction of permits to members of 'Kisha Clubs') and the late 2013 legislation which expands the definitions of state secrets. (Japan's big slide in 2013 means that no Asian territory ranks in RWF's top 50.)
Astonishingly, recently despotic Myanmar, with a climb of seven places to 145th, is now ranked as more media-friendly than several Asian 'democracies,' notably Singapore (unchanged in 150th place), The Philippines and Malaysia. But RWF warns that Myanmar's reform process is slowing down.
"China's growing economic weight is allowing it to extend its influence over the media in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, which had been largely spared political censorship until recently. Media independence is now in jeopardy in these three territories, which are either "special administrative regions" or claimed by Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party's growing subjugation of the Hong Kong executive and its pressure on the Hong Kong media through its 'Liaison Office' is increasingly compromising media pluralism there. [Media pluralism] has also been threatened in Taiwan by the pro-Beijing Want Want group's acquisition of the China Times," RWF said.
Hong Kong legislator, Charles Mok on Sunday appealed for the government to uphold freedom of the press and media diversity in this a year of scheduled constitutional reform that is supposed to introduce democratic election of the territory's chief executive.
But the current chief executive CY Leung, a man used to visiting Beijing on a weekly basis prior to his appointment in 2012, is directly accused by Li of causing her sacking.
And Mok only needed to point to another recent incident of Hong Kong media meddling, the curious failure of HK Television Network to win a broadcast license, for him to join the dots and accuse Leung, the Liaison Office and the mainland government of further interference.
"Commercial Radio will have to enter into negotiations for the renewal of its license in the coming years, and the eventual decision will have to be made by the Chief Executive-in-Council - and we have all seen how the Chief Executive-in-Council had previously turned the recommendation by the Communications Authority upside down in the episode of Hong Kong TV's free terrestrial television license application - such speculation is not without reasons," Mok said. Nor is it alone.
Shih Wing-ching, the head of Hong Kong Chinese language free newspaper AM-730 says that Beijing is using economic pressure in an attempt to change his paper's editorial line.
Shih said Sunday that state-owned companies have recently removed advertisements from his paper, which employs Li as a columnist.
"All the owners of news media want to do business with China; you have to play to the tune of the Chinese government," says Lee Cheuk-yan, another Hong Kong legislator.
Separately, Hong Kong Journalists ' Association representatives handed out blue ribbons on the sidelines of Sunday's Hong Kong Marathon, warning that press freedom in the territory was at stake.
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