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Concerns Grow Over Hong Kong Censorship

FILE - A pro-democracy protester stands next to a banner in Hong Kong, Sept. 30, 2014.

FILE - A pro-democracy protester stands next to a banner in Hong Kong, Sept. 30, 2014.

In Hong Kong, where last year’s pro-democracy protests ended in a stalemate with the Beijing-backed government, there are signs of increasing state censorship.

A new report has found that Hong Kong police have requested more web posts to be taken down during the last four months than in the previous four years combined.

That data, plus recently revealed rules regarding Executive Council members’ interviews with the media, have added to the concerns of democracy activists, who say the city’s history of freedom of expression is gradually eroding under Chinese rule.

Darcy Christ, a researcher with the Hong Kong Transparency Report at the University of Hong Kong, has seen an increase in the number of web sites being taken down.

"There is definitely a spike, but like I say, its mostly in the case of take down requests. That's not to discount that, but definitely user requests are one other important issue especially after the occupy protests," said Christ.

Since October, Hong Kong police have made 101 requests to websites and service providers to delete content. That figure compares with 29 requests in the preceding nine months of last year and a total of 65 requests in the previous three years combined. Last year police also made more than 4,000 requests for online user information, such as email and IP addresses.

Lawmaker and Internet entrepreneur Charles Mok has called for greater independent scrutiny and oversight of such police requests.

"My concern is that the police is stepping up and using its power whether or not it is invested in law, but at least they have the execution of power and they seem to be telling these social media sites to take down messages," said Mok.

Last month the PEN American Center, a New York-based writers’ group, wrote a report warning that Hong Kong’s more open media was showing signs of increased self-censorship, and coverage more tailored toward the business interests of their financial backers.

In what activists say is another threat to democracy, this week local media reported that members of the city’s executive council have been ordered to inform the government in advance of all media interviews.

The policy has been in place since last October, when pro-democracy protesters began their demonstrations. Executive councilors must state all interviews with the press on a weekly basis, submitting the time and date of the interviews and the name of the media organization. Regina Ip, a legislator and member of the Executive Council, said the policy has not prevented her from speaking openly with the press.

"Somebody like me in the legislative council, who takes questions from reporters practically every day, it's not possible for me to report all interviews, and I have not encountered any problems, any queries, from the executive council secretariat, and I am not aware of any attempts to gag us, so I think it is really unnecessary to read too much into these arrangements," said Ip.

Ip, who is with the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, said democracy activists’ concerns about greater limits to freedom of speech in Hong Kong are unfounded.

"I think that's really reading too much into development in Hong Kong. Hong Kong remains a highly free and open society, and we have a large measure of freedom of expression. We know that in Western, democratic society people don't have absolute freedom of expression," said Ip.

The surge in web posts taken down by Hong Kong’s police and the new rule regarding interviews with the media began last fall as democracy activists filled the city streets for nearly three months. Protesters have vowed further acts of civil disobedience and pledge to continue their campaign for direct elections of the city’s leader this spring.