Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday side-stepped a controversy over the government broadcaster’s treatment of a journalist known for her tough questioning, describing it as a “human resources” issue.
RTHK‘s associate programme Officer Nabela Qoser has had her probationary period extended by 120 days and an investigation into complaints against her has been reopened.
The government broadcaster received complaints against Qoser last year. The journalist was renowned for her tough questioning of Hong Kong officials during the height of the city’s pro-democracy protests last year, especially after a mob attack by white-clad thugs on passengers at Yuen Long subway station.
Supporters say Qoser is the victim of political persecution and over 49,000 people have signed an online petition of support.
Asked about the issue, Lam told reporters she had no specific comment and was not expected to be involved in the daily operations of government departments.
“For matters relating to the management of the civil service, it is a HR issue, a human resources issue, that will be handled by the management of every department,” she told a press conference.
“RTHK, yes, is a public broadcaster but it is also a government department. So like all the other government departments, the departmental management has to manage its staff in accordance with the rules and regulations of the civil service,” she added.
Asked separately whether Qoser’s probation extension and renewed investigation constitutes the suppression of press freedom, Lam said she was not in a position to answer: “I don’t know the ins and outs of this particular case.”
Civil servants in Hong Kong are currently subject to a three-year probationary period after joining.
RTHK is fully-funded by the Hong Kong government but says its news coverage is impartial and independent. Fears over press freedom have intensified since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law this summer. Lam says such fears are unjustified.
According to RTHK, the public broadcaster’s union on Monday described the move to extend Qoser’s probation and renew investigations into complaints as “political persecution”.
The union’s chairwoman Gladys Chiu also expressed concern about how the decision would affect the quality of RTHK‘s journalism. “I think it is not too far-fetched to think … if all this is established as a norm or as a given, then I feel it will impact the professional work of RTHK staff in the long run.”
Pro-Beijing lawyer Stanley Ng, who heads the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, has criticised Qoser’s questions to officials in July last year, saying they were “personal attacks” and that her behaviour should not be praised.
“RTHK as an official media should be accountable to the chief executive,” Ng added. “Being loyal to the government is its duty.”
An online petition headed “We are all Nabela” supporting Qoser and opposing what it called the political persecution of journalists in Hong Kong had garnered over 49,000 signatories by around 5pm on Tuesday.