Journalists in Hong Kong have called on media organizations to clarify the deletion of comments attributed to Beijing's propaganda czar, who reportedly warned that the city shouldn't "interfere with the rest of China."
Huang Kunming, head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department, told a delegation of Hong Kong media bosses that "Hong Kong media should not become a political base for interfering with the rest of China," according to live video of the meeting seen by reporters.
Huang's comments were relayed to the media by the boss of Singtao media group, Siu Sai-wo, who headed the delegation.
"Some media outlets had reported his remarks, both in the text and headlines of their reports," the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) said in a statement on its website on Wednesday.
It said delegates who were present at the briefing didn't refute Siu’s remarks at the time that he made them, but that the references to the idea of Hong Kong as "a political base" were later deleted by several Hong Kong media outlets.
"Some media outlets, which were represented in the delegation, have later changed their original reports; they deleted Siu’s reference ... to 'a political base for interfering with the mainland'," the HKJA said.
It said other media had deleted the television footage of the media briefing from their websites.
The move reportedly came after a "reminder" from Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong that Siu's comments were only intended "for internal discussion."
"We hold the view that the incident is highly unusual," the HKJA said, adding that it had received a number of queries from fellow journalists.
"They are concerned about whether it is a case of self-censorship or external pressure on Hong Kong media," it said.
The group called on Siu, the other delegates to the meeting, and China's propaganda department, to clarify whether Siu's comments were correctly reported or not.
It added: "We urge those media outlets who have deleted their reports to clarify whether they have done so because of pressure from Beijing."
But a delegate to the meeting who declined to be identified confirmed to RFA on Wednesday that Huang had indeed told the meeting: "The Hong Kong media should not become a political base from which to attack the rest of China."
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said that if the reports of censorship from the central propaganda department and the liaison office were true, then that would have "a clearly negative impact on the freedom of the press in Hong Kong, and on one country, two systems."
"It would be a pretty blatant case of the Communist Party ... controlling the Hong Kong media," Lui said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would continue to function as a separate jurisdiction for 50 years, with its traditional freedoms intact.
But repeated rulings from Beijing resulting the disqualification of elected lawmakers and would-be election candidates in recent years, and the refusal this month of a visa to a Financial Times journalist who hosted an event featuring a pro-independence activist have led many to believe that those freedoms are already being curtailed.
Lui said that if Beijing had issued a notice to media organizations calling for the deletion of Huang's reported comments, then it showed that the Chinese Communist Party sees the Hong Kong media as extensions of its propaganda machine.
"It would mean that the Hong Kong media are now among its mouthpieces; that they have entered the ranks of Party-loyal media to be deployed and controlled," he said. "I think that would be a big danger signal."
Reported by Jing Yuan and Hwang Chun-mei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.