Officials of the World Association of Newspapers said it was mere coincidence that its twice-yearly conference opened in Hong Kong on June 4, anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Other dates would have been fine, it said, but this was the only time the Convention and Exhibition Centre was free when it tried to make a booking last year. For a media organisation dedicated to the defence and promotion of free speech, it did not matter that its conference would kick off on a day when Hong Kong's most symbolic act of free speech - the annual commemoration of the crackdown - was held. If anything, it was a plus, not a negative, as it would be for a commercial body. While praising the Chinese Government for honouring its commitment to maintain a free press in Hong Kong after 1997, association chairman Roger Parkinson, in his opening speech, pulled no punches in attacking the mainland's tight control over the media. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa tried, but failed, to mount a robust response for the mainland. Maybe he did not really know much about the mainland press. If he had known, he could have told the conference that progress has been made by parts of the mainland media in trying to function less like a mouthpiece of the party. In particular, at provincial and city levels, local papers have benefited from economic reforms which allow them to operate like commercial enterprises. Partly because there are still only a limited number of dailies relative to the mainland's large population, many papers have reaped huge profits and are gobbling up weaker ones to form giant conglomerates. In chasing more readers and advertising dollars, they are also behaving more like papers in the West in exposing social problems, maladministration, consumer rip-offs and the like. Admittedly, some areas, such as political reform, remain off-limits. It is important that there is movement in this area as well. The experience of other countries has shown that a free press is not a luxury, but an integral part of the development process. Neither does a free press lead to political instability as some fear. Rather, it can be a cement holding a nation together. The stresses and strains that inevitably occur when a country develops rapidly, can be better handled when the press exists as a safety valve. As a country modernises economically, there will always be winners and losers. An open press provides a safety valve for those who lose out in the process of development. Politically as well, the press can be an important check against corruption and maladministration. This is not to say that a free press guarantees good government. There are numerous examples of bad government coexisting with a vibrant press. But a free press is still one of the hallmarks of a modern society.