Press freedom in Hong Kong is at its lowest ebb since the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China and needs further action to protect it, journalists said following a mass rally at the weekend.
"Press freedom in Hong Kong is facing an extremely grim future," veteran journalist Ching Cheong, who was imprisoned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party from 2005-2008 on charges of spying for Taiwan. "State power is now continually triumphing over press freedom."
"If we don't continue to stand up and speak out, the oppression will continue without abating," said Ching, speaking after thousands of people gathered outside Hong Kong government headquarters to call for greater safeguards on press freedom.
Protesters carrying banners calling for "Free Speech and a Free Hong Kong" gathered outside central government offices, while working journalists warned that the muzzling of the city's press is already under way.
Liberal scholars are barred from appearing in some papers, headlines critical of Beijing and the Hong Kong government are removed, while "sensitive" photos are edited from papers before they go to press, the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA), which organized the rally, said in a statement on its website.
"The trend is very clear," HKJA Chairperson Sham Yee-lan told the rally.
"Somebody wants to control the media, and to punish disobedient journalists."
A series of staff changes at prominent news organizations involving outspoken journalists and columnists mean that many, if not most, media organizations now engage in self-censorship to avoid angering Beijing, journalists and rights groups have said in recent weeks.
Commentators also point to deepening ties between Hong Kong media bosses and Beijing, greater censorship and influence of mainland Chinese propaganda officials on Hong Kong's newsrooms.
But journalists weren't the only people to join Sunday's march.
"We want to protect our core values, which is why we have come out in support," one high school student told RFA.
He said the students had found the axing of outspoken talk show host Lee Wai-ling by Commercial Radio to be "the most unacceptable thing" in recent weeks.
Lee, who was sacked on Feb. 13 as host of the popular critical talk show "On a Clear Day," is the latest in a string of high-profile talk-show hosts and editors to be removed from their jobs in recent years.
"She was ... fired because of major political factors, so we must stand up and speak out for our values," the student said.
Further action likely
A second protester surnamed Yip said he had brought his daughter along to the demonstration, to help preserve freedom of expression for the next generation.
"A lot of people say that demonstrating doesn't lead to anything, but if I don't come out today, perhaps I won't even have the opportunity in the future," he said.
Ching said the purpose of Sunday's rally, which organizers said was attended by more than 6,000 people, was to issue a wake-up call to Hong Kong citizens.
Sham had already called on Hong Kong citizens to join the movement, suggesting further action is likely.
Ching denied the rally had any political motivation, however. "It's not our aim to put pressure on any particular person," he said.
"We just want [Hong Kong's] citizens to care about the fact that press freedom is now in great danger."
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government said it couldn't interfere with editorial decisions.
"On community concern expressed over staff changes in media organizations in recent years, the Government ... cannot interfere with the editorial freedom, independent operation and internal management of these organizations," according to a statement on the government's official website.
But it said the government would aim to safeguard press freedom nonetheless.
"These core values ... are the major elements to sustaining Hong Kong's status as an international metropolis," it said.
Meanwhile, foreign journalists in Hong Kong said they shared the HKJA's concern over growing self-censorship.
"We will continue to speak out in collaboration with our colleagues in the Hong Kong Journalists Association and others who believe that a free press is the bedrock to Hong Kong's other freedoms," the Foreign Correspondents' Club said in a statement on its website after the rally.
Earlier this month, it welcomed annual reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders which it said drew attention to a "darkening climate of self-censorship" against a backdrop of physical violence and interference by officials and corporations, in Hong Kong.
"[This] threatens to erode Hong Kong's unique position as a bastion of free expression under Chinese rule," the FCC said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Lin Jing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.