China's propaganda chief has reportedly warned Hong Kong's senior media executives not to allow the city's newsrooms to "become a base for interfering with mainland politics" as Beijing ramps up pressure on challenges to its authority.
Concerns about press freedom in Hong Kong have intensified after the government denied a visa to a British journalist, who had chaired a talk by an independence activist at the city's press club in August.
The reported remarks by Huang Kunming, head of the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department, were quoted by Siu Sai-wo, CEO of Hong Kong's Sing Tao News Corporation, who spoke to the city's media after a meeting with the Chinese official.
Siu said Huang had told the group of visiting journalists and executives in Beijing that he hoped Hong Kong media "would not become a base for interfering with mainland politics", according to local news site Apple Daily.
Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) chairman Chris Yeung said Huang's remarks sounded like "an obvious case of telling media what they should do and what they should not do".
The comments were "plainly a clear effort, a clear attempt, to influence the media sector here", Yeung told AFP.
Apple Daily reported that some local news sites later removed references to the reported remarks after officials from Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong said that Huang's comments were off the record.
A Google search by AFP journalists for Huang's quote turned up a report by Commercial Radio Hong Kong, but the link led to a blank page, suggesting the original content might have been removed.
The HKJA said it was "deeply concerned" about the reported removals, adding that it would spark "fear (that) media were practising self-censorship".
The delegation was made up of 20 senior management figures from Hong Kong's media industry who were on a three-day visit to Beijing, according to the South China Morning Post.
Earlier this month China warned foreign countries not to "interfere" in Hong Kong's unprecedented decision to effectively blacklist Victor Mallet, a senior Financial Times journalist, after the UK and other governments expressed alarm over eroding freedoms in the former British colony.
Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club, where Mallet serves as vice president, regularly hosts talks by an array of speakers, including Chinese officials.
The club was pressured by authorities to scrap the talk by pro-independence activist Andy Chan but it had refused, saying it stands for freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the region, and "neither endorses nor opposes the views of its various speakers and panellists".