Officials from China's foreign ministry sat in on an editorial meeting of Hong Kong's English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) last week, a Paris-based press freedom group said on Wednesday.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said the three officials attended the editorial meeting on Aug. 30 as "observing guests," amid concerns that the paper has increasingly leaned towards the ruling Chinese Communist Party line since being taken over by New York-listed conglomerate Alibaba.
"Against the backdrop of growing interference from Beijing, which poses a threat to press freedom in Hong Kong, it was natural that the journalists would perceive the officials’ presence as a form of intimidation, RSF East Asia director Cédric Alviani said in a statement on the RSF website.
Alviani called on the SCMP "to be vigilant about anything that might call into question the editorial independence of journalists."
It described the officials' presence as an "unpleasant surprise," adding that Hong Kong's once-freewheeling media is under increasing pressure to conform to Beijing's line.
The officials' visit was part of a farewell tour for foreign ministry spokesman Sun Zhen, it said.
According to RSF, SCMP, which was founded under British colonial rule as an English-language paper of record in 1903, has been subject to growing influence from Beijing since its acquisition by Alibaba in 2016.
"Early this year, SCMP took part in a parody of [an] interview, staged by Beijing, with Swedish journalist [and publisher] Gui Minhai who has been arbitrarily detained in China for three years," the group said.
It said editorial meetings are "sensitive," because news stories and angles are discussed.
Calls to the foreign ministry's representative in Hong Kong rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Baptist University, said external visitors to Hong Kong's news organizations aren't uncommon, but are often limited to non-essential editorial meetings.
"We may not have gotten to the point of direct interference [from Beijing], but all that has to happen is for news organizations not to speak out, and that is already a form of interference, even though there was no specific action you could put your finger on," Lui said.
"This really doesn't show respect for news organizations' editorial independence," he said.
Meanwhile, current affairs commentator Poon Siu-to agreed, saying the visit was inappropriate.
"Editorial meetings are crucial to the exercise of editorial freedom and independence," Poon said. "If the door is opened a crack [to such practices] now, then it will be easier for external forces to intervene in a more important meeting or news-related decision in the future."
The move comes after the Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) hit out at the Hong Kong government for holding a secretive ceremony ceding part of the city's territory to Chinese control, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, "without giving prior notification to the public nor inviting the media to cover the event."
A recent report by the HKJA also found a marked fall in measures of press freedom in the city.
Originally placed 18th in RSF's World Press Freedom Index in 2002, five years after the handover to China, Hong Kong now ranks 70th out of 180, RSF said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover to China, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the maintenance of existing freedoms of speech, publication and association, as well as a separate legal jurisdiction, for at least 50 years.
But recent interventions by Beijing in the political and cultural life of the city, including edicts from the National People's Congress that resulted in the disqualification of democratically elected lawmakers and potential election candidates, have led many to conclude that those freedoms are likely a thing of the past.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.