A Hong Kong court has granted two journalist unions permission to challenge an official warning to public broadcaster RTHK about a satirical programme accused of “insulting” the police force.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and the RTHK Programme Staff Union announced on Monday evening that the court has granted their application for a judicial review of the Communications Authority’s warning regarding an episode of Headliner aired in February.

judiciary court
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The journalists’ union says the aim of its legal challenge is to safeguard freedom of speech and ensure there is still a place for satirical shows on current affairs.

“The HKJA has been observing the impact of the ruling [of the Communications Authority] and think it is a restriction on freedom of speech,” it said in a statement last week.

A sweeping new national security law imposed by Beijing on June 30 has further heightened fears in Hong Kong that media and other freedoms are at threat. The government denies this is so.

Judicial reviews are considered by the Court of First Instance and examine the decision-making processes of administrative bodies. Issues under review must be shown to affect the wider public interest.

On May 19, the Communications Authority upheld complaints that a Headliner episode on February 14 was “disparaging and insulting” to police. A warning was issued to RTHK as the authorities ruled the episode had breached the Generic Code of Practice on Television Programmes.

Police chief Chris Tang had filed repeated complaints to Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing, saying the show had undermined police work after causing a “wrong impression” and “misunderstanding” of the force. The government communications body said over 3,300 members of the force had also lodged complaints.

According to local media, HKJA and the RTHK staff union state in their writ that authorities “mistakenly” categorised Headliner as a programme expressing personal views rather than as a satirical show. The Communications Authority had made its decision based on a “wrong set of standards,” the applicants argue.

RTHK Headliner
RTHK’s Headliner has received complaints after airing a controversial episode on February 14,2020. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

“It disproportionately and unfairly limits the expression of freedom of speech, the relevant decision was not reasonable,” the writ states.

On the same day that the Communications Authority announced its decision, the public broadcaster apologised and announced it would scrap the show after 31 years. The last episode aired on June 19.

RTHK Radio Television Hong Kong Office

Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily later reproduced a similar programme that featured Wong He – the guest host in the controversial episode – and one of its regular hosts Tsang Chi-ho.

RTHK is fully funded by the Hong Kong government but maintains that its news coverage is independent and impartial.

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.