Civil servants at Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK will be among those required to pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong government if they are recent recruits, or in line for promotion. But veteran programming staff have told HKFP that the pledge would constitute a “practical deterrence” on editorial decisions. Nevertheless, they intend to comply while the public broadcaster grapples with greater troubles.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP

“You can’t worry too much about it,” a TV programming staffer told HKFP. She said she would not hesitate to sign and declare allegiance to the government. “Though I think my understanding of allegiance is different from the regime’s.”

Employees who spoke with HKFP requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

On October 12, RTHK staff received a government-wide circular stating that – under Article 6 of the new national security law – civil servants joining the government after the law was enacted on July 1 would be required to sign a written declaration. Meanwhile, appointees to more senior positions would be required to take an oath.

The oath states that civil servants will “uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” “bear allegiance” to the city, and “be dedicated to my duties and be responsible to the Government.”

Photo: Leon Lee via Google Maps.

The security law was enacted by Beijing in July to prevent, stop and punish behaviour in Hong Kong that it deems a threat to national security. The legislation was inserted into the Basic Law, bypassing the local legislature, following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. The move – which gave police sweeping new powers – alarmed democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China.

Founded in 1928, RTHK, or Radio Television Hong Kong, is the city’s publicly funded broadcaster, though it is editorially independent. It is both a public service broadcaster and a government department, according to an official brochure. Many RTHK staffers are employed as external contractors, and not considered part of the civil service. The government’s new requirement will not affect the outsiders.

“There is practical deterrence,” the programming staff member said of the oath-taking. “We didn’t used to think having worked in programmes like Headliner would prevent you from getting a promotion, but it might be the case now,” she said.

Headliner was Hong Kong’s longest-running political satirical show, but was axed in June after pro-government politicians and the city’s police complained that it made them targets of mockery.

Headline hosts Ng Chi-sum (left) and Tsang Chi-ho (right). File Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Since the security law’s enactment, programming staff have become more keenly aware of the need to include comments or voices from the pro-government camp, even though it may be at the cost of narrative structure, the officer said.

A member of the RTHK Programme Staff Union committee said it has not received any enquiries nor request for help from its members. “Our colleagues in the news and public affairs department usually deal with lots of programmes related to current affairs and politics,” she said. “Will we now have to consider whether our content and angles would be in conflict with the oath we took?”

Oath-taking ‘insignificant’

Another editorial staffer echoed this and said she has not heard discussions about taking the oath among her colleagues. She also said she would not hesitate to sign the declaration. “Maybe we’ve been facing too many attacks lately, so this doesn’t come across as a really big deal.”

“Compared with Nabela Qoser’s matter, this is insignificant,” she added.

Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Qoser is an RTHK television journalist known for her tough questioning of government officials. On the same day as the civil service circular, RTHK re-opened an investigation into her conduct, based on complaints made by members of the public last year. The investigation would extend Qoser’s three-year probationary period for another 120 days.

“If they want to mess with you, there are a million ways to do so,” she said, and taking the pledge would be “mostly symbolic.”

In May this year, the government appointed a dedicated team to review the broadcaster’s governance and management, and whether it had violated its charter. A month later, the broadcaster announced it was closing the curtains on Headliner. The show had attracted hundreds of complaints from the pro-Beijing camp, including from the Hong Kong police chief. The Communications Authority also initiated a probe into the show.

RTHK Director of Broadcast, Leung Ka-wing. File Photo: Citizen News.

Then in July, RTHK‘s Board of Advisers, which does not typically discuss programming complaints in its meetings, addressed one made by pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho against the programme Hong Kong Connection. Ho was interviewed for an episode that investigated an attack that occurred in the Yuen Long metro station on July 21 last year.

Deference or debate?

Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip previously said on Commercial Radio, that there would be a “relatively high threshold” for public servants found to be breaching the oath – an offence he described as a “very serious matter.” He said not accepting “One Country, Two Systems” or not acknowledging the city as part of China were examples of behaviour that would defy the declaration.

Patrick Nip on Commercial Radio on October 10, 2020. File Photo: iCable screenshot.

Civil servants are welcome to freely discuss while the government studies a prospective policy, Nip said on the matter of pledging allegiance to the government. Once a policy is decided, they should wholeheartedly support and enforce it, and refrain from making public comments against it.

Another veteran staff on RTHK‘s public affairs TV programming department, questioned what “allegiance” means in the government’s terms.

“What if the government suspends a bill proposal – does that mean our programmes can no longer interview those who supported the bill?” he said. “Many public policies are debated and discussed on RTHK programmes. Then is it OK to discuss whether a policy proposal is effective?”

“I have no issue with taking the oath because I think I absolutely abide by the Basic Law,” he said. “For example, I support not exercising mainland law in Hong Kong. It guarantees our freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly. Of course I’d support it.”

“From a public policy point of view, the government should consider whether this oath would help achieve its goals,” he said.

Update 2/11: An RTHK spokesperson told HKFP that the Civil Service Bureau (CSB) is informing them, and government staffers, about the oath-taking requirement: “The requirement for civil servants to take an oath or make a declaration is to enhance civil servants’ awareness of the expectations and responsibilities brought on them by their official positions. Such is not imposing any new restriction on the civil servants.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.