Public broadcasting service RTHK has filed an official complaint against free-to-air station Television Broadcasts (TVB) for suspending its political satire show Headliner on short notice during President Xi Jinping’s visit last week.

The show – usually critical of the government – was scheduled to be aired on TVB Jade last Friday at 6pm, but the broadcaster informed RTHK just minutes before its scheduled broadcast that it had been postponed to 12:30am on Saturday.

Headliner. The subtitle says: “There is a disease that may only be cured by leaving the mother country.” Photo: RTHK Staff Union, via Facebook.

Some suspected that it was an act of self-censorship, as the episode discussed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo and views critical of Xi’s visit.

TVB said at the time that the switch was made to accommodate a piece of “breaking news,” but it turned out to be a pre-recorded 15-minute speech by Xi that was published by other news stations half an hour before TVB showed it.

RTHK Programme Staff Union said the Xi news clip was a pool video taken by i-Cable and was distributed to all relevant stations around 5pm last Friday.

tvb headliner
Headliner. Photo: Screenshot.

It said it reviewed the reports of other TV stations and found that TVB’s news channel 83, i-Cable and Now TV aired the speech between 5:10pm and 5:15pm. In contrast, TVB Jade showed the clip around 5:50pm.

The union said TVB first told RTHK that the show had been cancelled, and “only offered to air it on Channel J5 at midnight” after RTHK said the show must be aired as scheduled as its content was time-sensitive.

rthk staff union
RTHK Staff Union outside their office. File Photo: RTHK Staff Union, via Facebook.

It also questioned why TVB did not air the show immediately following the clip of Xi’s speech. Instead, TVB played a finance news round-up and then replayed a feng shui show afterwards.

“TVB decided to move Headliner without RTHK’s consent. We think the decision goes against the usual practice. We solemnly urge TVB to explain [its actions] to the public as soon as possible,” the union said in a statement on Tuesday.

RTHK has filed a complaint to government watchdog the Communications Authority. The authority said it had received 190 complaints from the public over TVB’s decision as of Wednesday 5pm.

RTHK also sent a letter to TVB demanding an explanation. It said it refused to sign a document from TVB asking RTHK to agree to the programme switch.

Amen Ng Man-yee, who heads RTHK’s Communications Department, said Wednesday that TVB “gave the impression that it is not very professional” over the matter.

TVB City. File Photo: TVB.

“If you want to switch a pre-scheduled programme, you must give us adequate notice and inform the audience of the changes. This was clearly not the case,” she said.

“Even if the change was made to accommodate breaking news, the programme should still be aired after the news. That was also not the case.”

‘Not professional’

But TVB hit back at Ng on Wednesday: “If Ms. Ng thinks that the speech given by the country’s leader to all of Hong Kong is not news, or is not as important as Headliner, she is disregarding fact. It is also not something that a professional journalist or broadcaster should say.”

It added that the arrangement for TVB to air RTHK’s programmes is a “historical relic,” as RTHK now has its own TV channel.

“RTHK’s coverage and infiltration rate is similar to that of TVB, so logically this outdated arrangement should be terminated as soon as possible,” it said.

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui said he was “outraged” by TVB’s response.

ted hui
Ted Hui. Photo: HKFP/Kris Cheng.

“I think its reply is illogical, unreasonable and smearing,” he said. “The objective effect of the decision is to create an illusion that everything is peaceful, as well as to block people from views critical of the government. This is totally self-censorship.”

See also: Journalism watchdog laments rise of media ‘confessions’ and ‘red capital’ in Hong Kong

He urged Chief Executive Carrie Lam to investigate the controversy. “Does she know that the media industry is shocked and the public is very angry?” he said. “I urge Lam to defend Hong Kong’s press freedom and bring justice to RTHK, the public and everyone who likes RTHK.”

He also said he has written to the legislature’s Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting, asking it to hold a discussion on the matter.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.