HONG KONG, April 13 (Reuters) — Hong Kong's main journalists' association and pro-democracy groups reacted angrily on Thursday to a warning by a Beijing official that local media do not report views advocating independence for Taiwan.

"The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) is shocked and disturbed by comments made by the Deputy Director of the Central Government's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, Wang Fengchao," it said in a statement.

"Mr Wang's comments violate the principle of a high degree of autonomy and as such are highly inappropriate... The HKJA believes Mr Wang's remarks are seriously damaging to press freedom."

Wang, a senior Beijing official based in Hong Kong, told a seminar on Wednesday journalists had a responsibility and obligation to support reunification and uphold China's unity.

"The media should not treat speeches and views which advocate Taiwan's independence as normal news items, nor should they report them like normal cases of reporting the voices of different parties," Wang was quoted in Hong Kong media as saying.

His comments followed an interview last week on local cable television with Taiwan's vice president-elect Annette Lu, in which she was perceived by China as making "separatist" remarks.

Beijing responded to Lu's comments on Taiwan independence by calling her "the scum of the nation" in state media reports.

A dozen members of the pro-democracy Frontier group, led by outspoken legislator and former journalist Emily Lau, protested outside the government headquarters on Thursday to voice their concern over press freedom in the wake of Wang's remarks.

The Taiwan question

The "one-China" policy, which regards the island as an inseparable part of the mainland, is a Chinese pre-condition for talks and peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops lost to Mao Zedong's Communist forces in a civil war and fled into exile on the island in 1949.

The Hong Kong government defended media freedom as guaranteed in the former colony's Basic Law, the mini-constitution which came into effect after Britain returned the territory to China in 1997.

But the government also reiterated Hong Kong's support for the "one China" policy, for the "one country two systems" formula under which the territory operates, and for peaceful reunification of Taiwan and the mainland.

"The freedom of the media to report on current affairs in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong is protected by the Basic Law," said Stephen Lam, chief government spokesman.

Asked whether Beijing was seeking to limit Hong Kong press freedoms in covering the Taiwan issue, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi said: "Hong Kong will protect news freedom to the extent that it is within Hong Kong's Basic Law."

The Hong Kong Bar Association said press freedom is guaranteed by the Basic Law. "Any pressure brought to bear on public media will erode this right contrary to the spirit and intent of the concept of 'one country, two systems' and the Basic Law," it said in a statement.

Anti-subversion rules needed

Wang's comments echoed earlier remarks by Xu Simin, a Standing Committee member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a China parliamentary body, that the television station should not have broadcast Lu's remarks.

Both Wang and Xu also urged Hong Kong to speed up the drafting of anti-subversion legislation to put into practice Article 23 of the Basic Law. It stipulates that the Hong Kong government will enact laws to prohibit acts of treason, sedition or subversion against Beijing, as well as the theft of state secrets.

"As for legislation on Basic Law Article 23, we do not have a set timetable and we shall first conduct consultation of this matter," Lam said.

Hong Kong, which Britain ruled for 150 years, is a special administrative region of China. It has been allowed to keep its capitalist system for 50 years but Beijing is responsible for all defence and foreign policy issues.

Prominent academic Joseph Cheng called upon Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa on Thursday to explain the importance of press freedom to leaders in Beijing, and urged Wang to clarify Beijing's support for a free press in in the territory.

But Lau Siu-kai, a former adviser to China on Hong Kong affairs, said Wang's views did not necessarily represent those of the central government.