Hong Kong saw its tradition of press freedom eroded during the tenure of outgoing chief executive Donald Tsang, according to a new survey by a journalists' association in the former British colony.
More than 92 percent of journalists polled by the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said they believed that press freedom was now being actively hindered by government officials, who exerted an ever-tightening grip on the flow of information.
Four out of five of the 663 respondents, who included reporters, photographers, editors, and management, said they believed that the degree of media freedom in the territory worsened during Tsang's tenure.
That belief is now held by 86.9 percent, 28.5 percentage points more than in a similar survey five years ago.
For the first time, tighter official control of information was cited as the biggest threat to press freedom in Hong Kong, which has previously taken the form of self-censorship to avoid alienating powerful officials and corporations in China.
"This is a shocking result," said HKJA chairwoman Mak Yin-ting in an interview on Monday. "It is a situation that is ... very worrying."
Mak said the majority of respondents now see government control of information as the single biggest factor behind the decrease in media freedom.
"This is a deadly blow, because the Hong Kong government is the biggest holder of information," she said.
The police and fire services were cited by 57 percent of respondents as having limited journalists' access to information during Tsang's tenure as head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government.
Self-censorship still exists as a concern, according to 71 percent of journalists surveyed, with around 40 percent reporting that negative news about major advertising clients was played down, and 37 percent saying their bosses de-emphasized news that portrayed Beijing in a poor light.
"During the past 10 years, most journalists and intellectuals who care about current affairs have said they feel that self-censorship is getting worse and worse," Mak said.
But she said that more than 67 percent said they believed that Beijing's central liaison office in the territory was exerting political influence over press freedom.
"Beijing has poured a huge amount of time and effort into maintaining a 'united front' [in Hong Kong]," Mak said, referring to the ruling Communist Party's term for the manufacture and encouragement of public opinion of which it approves.
"The media has been the main target."
She said Beijing had redoubled its 'united front' efforts following the mass demonstrations on July 1, 2003 against proposed anti-subversion legislation, which the government later abandoned.
Under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong has been promised the continuation of existing freedoms of expression and association for 50 years.
But journalists and commentators have pointed to a number of outspoken radio personalities who have departed from key political talk shows in the years since the handover of sovereignty to Beijing.
The territory's immigration service has also denied entry to prominent democracy activists and other individuals not approved by Beijing.
Hong Kong's leader-elect Leung Chun-ying will take over from Tsang on July 1, when thousands of people are expected to take to the streets in mass demonstrations which have become an annual pressure valve for political and social discontents in a political system which is strongly weighted in Beijing's favor.
Leung, a Beijing loyalist, won the vote by 689 votes out of a total of nearly 1,200 ballots cast by an election committee hand-picked by Beijing. His count exceeded the minimum number of votes by the smallest margin yet, compared with his two predecessors.
Leung's victory came after vigorous behind-the-scenes canvassing by Chinese officials following a series of scandals linked to his chief rival and former civil service chief Henry Tang, according to sources close to the electoral committee.
His victory was announced in late March, amid raucous shouts of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" from protesters.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.