Press giants defy 1997 fears

INTERNATIONAL media heavyweights are defying popular concern that press freedom in Hong Kong is eroding in the run-up to 1997 by making a major presence in the territory this year.

Top American newspapers, the New York Times, the Washington Post and the USA Today have recently established their bureaus here, and networks including CNN and the NBC are establishing their regional headquarters in the territory.

Other American newspapers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune and the US News and World Report are also planning to set up their offices in Hong Kong later this year.

While CNN International began broadcasting from Hong Kong on April 3, Asian NBC is in the process of recruiting 160 staff, including 65 editorial members, and will begin broadcasting this year.

Initially, Asian NBC plans to start with a TV financial service to be followed by an NBC Super Channel to cover general news, sport and entertainment.

The Japanese are following the trend. The Nihon Denpa News, the only TV news agency in Japan, which specialises in documentaries, is considering moving from Bangkok to Hong Kong.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, also known as the Japan Economic Journal, which is Japan's version of the Financial Times, is increasing its staff and planning to satellite its pages to the territory to be printed and sold directly to the 17,000-strong Japanese population here.

Word has it that the Financial Times is also considering sending its pages to Hong Kong by satellite so the leading British business paper can be on sale in the territory on its day of publication.

Channel 4 is also setting up a new bureau here and, initially, it is sharing its office with affiliate ITN. The Guardian is also establishing an office here and the bureau chief is expected to arrive by the middle of the year.

The foreign media's growing interest in Hong Kong is seen as a good thing for the territory with politicians hailing it as enriching the local media scene.

It is also seen as a vote of confidence in Hong Kong's press freedom despite the widespread concern about the threat of self-censorship when the territory reverts to Chinese rule in 1997.

While the American media giants maintain their moves are in recognition of Hong Kong and the region as a news-generating centre, media experts consider their action as in line with US foreign policy.

Although China is fully aware of the new movements, senior officials are yet to decide whether to change their policy towards foreign media in the territory.

But the present understanding among mainland officials is that there will not be a change of policy, and the press freedom currently enjoyed by foreign media will be maintained after 1997.

Mark Pinkstone, the Government's Chief Information Officer responsible for liaising with the foreign media, welcomed the media surge and believed there would be more moves on the way.

He said developments in Hong Kong in the run-up to 1997 and changes in China in the post-Deng period were major stories that the world wanted to know about.

'I'd expect more foreign media to establish offices in Hong Kong as the pace of transition gathers momentum. Hong Kong is becoming more of a news story,' said Mr Pinkstone.

Edward Gargan, the New York Times' newly-appointed correspondent in Hong Kong, said the paper was setting up its office to cover 1997.

'It is the most remarkable thing to write about,' he said.

Commenting on the trend of US media moving to the territory this year, Gargan believed the New York Times and other US publications felt that their presence in Asia and Hong Kong, in particular, had to be enhanced.

'The world has changed profoundly in the last 15 years. In the past, Hong Kong was not a dominant financial centre in Asia as it is today,' Gargan said.

After the Cold War, he said, all the US papers were reassessing their coverage of foreign events.

'The world is a lot more complicated and there's no easy working formula for how you report on it,' he said.

Apart from the Hong Kong bureau, the New York Times also established a new bureau in Shanghai a few weeks ago.

To make resources available for setting up its offices the New York Times cut a staff position at each of its offices in London and Moscow.

Seth Faison, the New York Times' newly-appointed Shanghai correspondent, said that the last time the paper had a bureau in the city was 45 years ago.

'We felt that we were not getting enough coverage in Asia as things had developed so fast in the last few years,' Faison said.

He said both he and Gargan would write business stories as the New York Times focused on the economic and the financial situation in Hong Kong and the Far East.

Noting the growing importance of Hong Kong in the entire region, and the good facilities the territory provided, Mr Pinkstone said foreign companies had every benefit in setting up offices here.

'They are like bees swarming around a honey pot,' he said.

Currently, Hong Kong has already proved itself a popular place in the region for foreign media.

Journalists coming from more than 120 foreign news organisations currently operate from the territory.

They come from all over the world but topping the list with the largest number of representative offices here is the US.

According to statistics complied by the Government's Information Services Department, there are a total of 31 American news organisations operating here including nine newspapers, nine magazines, six news agencies and seven television networks.

Japan, among the earliest to set up media offices here, ranks second with journalists from 16 news companies working here, including eight newspapers and six television networks.

Although Britain is currently Hong Kong's sovereign state, it ranks only third on the list with correspondents from 14 British media organisations based here.

Other foreign correspondents come from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Korea, Chile, Finland and all over Southeast Asia.

Notwithstanding its proximity to Hong Kong, and the big establishment of Xinhua (New China News Agency), the media in China also have journalists working here, including those from the People's Daily.

Mr Pinkstone said that most of the foreign correspondents managed to stay in Hong Kong for a few years.

'They come here for a period of two to five years and a very few stay beyond five years,' said Mr Pinkstone.

He expected that those who were arriving now would work here for at least two years, staying beyond 1997.

It remained to be seen how much longer they would stay after the handover as the story would not end in 1997, he added.