FREEDOM of the press will survive Hong Kong's return to China without the need for legal protection, Recreation and Culture Secretary James So Yiu-cho claimed yesterday. Despite concerns voiced by journalists that news reports will toe a pro-China line for fear of reprisals after 1997, Mr So said he saw no reason why present standards should slip. ''Hong Kong has always had a wide measure of press freedom, much more than in other territories in the Asia-Pacific region,'' he said. ''I'm sure Hong Kong will continue to enjoy this measure of press freedom as it is clearly stated in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. ''The best protection for journalists is to have a free society for the journalists to report the experience and view of society as they see it. ''Laws to protect it or laws to prohibit it would not be desirable,'' he said. The chairman of the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong, Shum Choi-sang said on Tuesday that self-censorship among journalists would increase because Hong Kong lacked legal protection for a free press. Mr So also said the Government would ''take note'' of any change in the editorial line of the South China Morning Post after its sale to Malaysian-born pro-Beijing business magnate Robert Kuok Hock Nien. But it would not be for the Government to dictate the editorial opinion of any newspaper or to decide to ban cross-media ownership between the print and electronic media simply to block the sale, he said. Legislation restricting ownership of newspapers and broadcasting stations would be introduced next year and it would be for the decision-making bodies to judge if any laws should be retrospective, he said.