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Hong Kong journalists launch free speech experiment -

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MARK COLVIN: Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has prided itself on freedom of the press, especially compared to the mainland.

There was far less censorship of books, newspapers and websites in Hong Kong.

But things have changed.

Now a small group of Hong Kong journalists is trying to fight back against encroaching suppression.

Bill Birtles reports.

(Sound of protestors chanting and clapping)

BILL BIRTLES: They were the protests that brought one of the world's busiest cities to a standstill.

(Sound of protestors chanting and clapping)

For more than two months late last year, thousands of protestors occupied key parts of Hong Kong's CBD in a bid for universal suffrage in the city.

That failed to sway China's ruling Communist Party, but journalists say what did change was the intensity of pressure on local media.

Tom Grundy is a British freelance journalist who's lived in Hong Kong for a decade.

TOM GRUNDY: About a year ago we noticed the attacks on journalists, commercial boycotts of more pro-democracy minded press. Some questionable sort of staff firing and just in the last few years, really it didn't used to be like this.

BILL BIRTLES: Hong Kong has plummeted from 12th to 70th on the World Press Freedom index in the past 13 years.

Reporter's Without Borders says last year saw the gravest threat to press freedom in Hong Kong since the UK returned it to China in 1997.

Claudia Mo is a member of Hong Kong's legislative assembly and a former journalist. She says commercial imperatives, more than direct censorship, have been changing the tone of political coverage in Hong Kong's media.

CLAUDIA MO: If you want to get on in Hong Kong either politically or financially or as a businessmen you need to be a patriot.

BILL BIRTLES: The threats to press freedom aren't just rhetorical.

Apple Daily is a feisty tabloid style Hong Kong newspaper and website. Hackers crashed its site, protestors blockaded its printing building and its proprietor, Jimmy Lai, was even the target of a firebomb attack.

Tom Grundy is part of a small group of journalists that's reacted by starting a new publication.

They're counting down the days until the launch of online site Hong Kong Free Press next month.

TOM GRUNDY: We need something robustly independent at this really important time. It's just after the Umbrella Movement protest and we're going up to some critical election in 2017, where we're debating what... one person, one vote - universal suffrage will look like at that stage, and no matter what it does look like, we need a robust free media to be that check on democracy.

BILL BIRTLES: So far the project has been raising money from donors online, and the organisers say commercial advertising would compromise the editorial line.

But while Tom Grundy and his colleagues hope the Free Press project will help stall Hong Kong's slide down the press freedom ladder, Claudia Mo says it might not make as much of a splash as they'd like for one key reason.

CLAUDIA MO: I hate to say it, I hate to admit it, but English levels in Hong Kong have been deteriorating also ever since 1997. My own online experience is that whenever I do anything only in English, I get much fewer responses.

MARK COLVIN: Claudia Mo, Hong Kong MP and journalist, speaking to Bill Birtles.