Britain 'seriously concerned' over Hong Kong press freedom

HONG KONG Fri Jul 11, 2014 4:54am EDT

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HONG KONG (Reuters) - A British government report on Hong Kong expresses "serious concerns" about press freedom and self-censorship in its former colony and about reports that leading British banks had pulled advertising from a local pro-democracy newspaper.

The six-monthly report, presented by Foreign Secretary William Hague to parliament on Thursday, is more explicit than London's recent summaries, reflecting rising tensions over democratic reform in the Asian financial hub.

"We believe that freedom of expression, including of the press, has played an important part in Hong Kong's success," the report, made available by the British Consulate General in Hong Kong, said.

"As such we take seriously concerns about press freedom, including fears about self-censorship," it adds, saying London would monitor the situation closely and noting Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying's "clear statements on press freedom".

The Hong Kong Journalists Association said in a report press freedom in Hong Kong had entered its darkest period in decades and has set up a group to investigate complaints of media self-censorship amid fears that Beijing is tightening its grip.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang that the 17 years since Hong Kong returned to China had shown the success of the "one country, two systems" autonomous system of government.

"British people should have a deep understanding and knowledge of how Hong Kong was 17 years ago and how it is now," he told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

But as Hong Kong is part of China no country had the right to interfere in its internal affairs, he added.

"China hopes the relevant country does things which benefit Hong Kong's stability and prosperity," Qin said.

The report details a series of recent incidents, including the stabbing in February of Kevin Lau, the former chief editor of a leading local newspaper, Ming Pao. It also notes media reports that London-based banks HSBC and Standard Chartered were among institutions that had pulled adverts from the popular Apple Daily tabloid "in response to political pressure".

Both banks, asked in London for comment, said any changes made in their advertising would be for commercial reasons.

"The bank's selection of marketing format and channel is commercial and linked to target market and customer segment,' an HSBC spokeswoman said.

Earlier this week, HSBC cut its rating for Hong Kong equities to underweight from neutral, saying a campaign for greater democracy in the Asian financial center could sour relations with China and hurt the city's economy. The move was not mentioned in Thursday's report.

Hong Kong is now locked in an intensifying political debate over its democratic future as the government decides how to implement Beijing's promises of a city-wide vote for its next leader in 2017.

Beijing officials are insisting that candidates can only be nominated by a special committee, but democracy activists are insisting the public must be able to select politicians for the ballot, fearing leading democrats will be otherwise screened out.

A campaign of civil disobedience threatens to shut down the city's financial district later in the summer unless a meaningful democratic plan is introduced by the government.

Hundreds of thousands marched to demand full democracy last week while 800,000 voted in an unofficial referendum on potential voting plans last month.

In the foreword to the report, Hague said there was "no perfect model" but it was important for Hong Kong people to have a "genuine choice and feel that they have a real stake in the outcome."

Chinese officials have repeatedly bristled at British comments on Hong Kong's democratic development and a recent White Paper issued by China's cabinet warned against 'foreign forces' meddling in the city.

Britain made no mention of democracy for Hong Kong until the dying days of 150 years of colonial rule.

Hague said that the "one country, two systems" concept continued to work well generally and that rights and freedoms enshrined in the agreement were being upheld.

(Reporting By Greg Torode, additional reporting by Steve Slater in London, and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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