Hong Kong’s government-funded broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, is under fire again. Last week, police arrested freelance TV producer Bao Choy, alleging that during her reporting she had made a false statement under the Road Traffic Ordinance to obtain information on vehicle owners.
The documentary that Choy produced –“7.21: Who Owns the Truth”– for Hong Kong Connection investigated individuals who might have been involved in the Yuen Long MTR attacks last year, one of the most notorious incidents during months of pro-democracy protests.
Police were widely accused of failing to take timely action to prevent a gang attack by suspected triads on protesters and regular commuters, which left dozens injured. There were also accusations that some officers were colluding with gangsters, a charge police deny.
After searching the Transport Department system to identify owners of vehicles filmed at the scene, producers visited the homes of several of them and asked for comment.
In response to public concerns that the government was targeting the public broadcaster, journalists, or anyone who disputed its interpretation of the mob attack, Secretary for Security John Lee denied taking aim at any particular sector.
Police said they did not target any incident or programme but their investigation was based on citizens’ complaints.
But RTHK Programme Staff Union chair Gladys Chiu questioned whether the arrest was intended to intimidate journalists and said the arrest operation was disproportionate to the offence. Choy was arrested by ten crime unit officers at her home. If convicted, she could face a HK$5,000 fine and six months’ imprisonment.
At a press conference Chiu said they have requested the management’s direct intervention to provide assistance to Choy.
Choy – who appeared in court on Tuesday – told reporters her case was no longer a personal matter but involved the public interest and press freedom. Dozens of members of the media, including RTHK’s acting deputy who stepped down in June, gathered outside the court to show support. Her case was adjourned till January and she remains free on bail.
Members of the public have criticised the government for cracking down on RTHK, which in theory enjoys editorial independence despite receiving public funding and has traditionally been allowed to cover politically sensitive topics.
Amid the political turmoil since the pro-democracy movement erupted last year and the national security law was enacted in June, the public broadcaster has been under fire from various quarters as the government appears to tighten its grip.
Many of RTHK‘s staff are employed on civil service terms. The government has decided that all those who joined the civil service on or after July 1, when the national security law came into force, should pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and promise to uphold its constitution known as the Basic Law.
In addition to newcomers, the requirement also applies to existing staff members whose employment is confirmed after completing probation, when contracts are renewed, or when they are up for promotion.
Questions arise as to whether the public broadcaster can stay impartial in its reporting after staff have been compelled to pledge allegiance to the government.
Interview with WHO top adviser criticised
RTHK News programme The Pulse was criticised by the Hong Kong government for allegedly breaching the One China policy after its producer Yvonne Tong asked questions about Taiwan’s efforts to join the World Health Organisation.
In a video call, Tong asked the WHO’s Dr Bruce Aylward to comment on the Taiwan government’s performance in containing the Covid-19 pandemic, and whether the organisation would reconsider the island’s membership. Aylward appeared to have hung up the call and evaded the question after reconnection.
Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau said the programme breached the principle that there is only one sovereign China. The Director of Broadcasting Leung Ka-wing should be held responsible for RTHK‘s deviation from its charter, Yau added, and RTHK should educate the public about One Country, Two Systems.
Comments from exiled activist removed
RTHK produced a special programme after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced in July that Legislative Council elections would be delayed for at least a year, citing the pandemic. Exiled activist Nathan Law was interviewed as a candidate who had stood in primaries organised by pro-democracy parties.
Law left the city ahead of the polling, shortly after the enactment of the security law that criminalises subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces.
The programme – originally available for on-line watching – was found to have been removed from the website. RTHK said this was because one of the interviewees was wanted by the police on suspicion of violating the security law. Chinese state media reported that Law – together with five other prominent activists – was wanted but local police have neither confirmed nor denied the report.
The broadcaster’s relations with police have deteriorated after programmes that featured criticisms of the force were condemned by the Communications Authority and subsequently suspended. RTHK‘s long-time collaboration with the police public relations department also ended this year.
National anthem to be aired every morning
Spokesperson Amen Ng said that according to its charter, the public broadcaster should enhance citizens’ understanding of One Country, Two Systems and nurture their civic and national identity. The new arrangement is necessary, she said.
Political satire show Headliner axed
The satirical show Headliner received a warning from the Communications Authority after the authority ruled as “substantiated” complaints that an episode aired in February had denigrated and insulted the police force.
The episode implied that police had more protective gear than healthcare staff when the Covid-19 pandemic first emerged. The 31-year-old show suspended production after airing the final episode in June.
Hong Kong Journalists Association and RTHK Programme Staff Union jointly filed a legal challenge against the ruling as they said the government decision greatly shrinks the space for satirical shows. The case will be heard in the High Court on June 7-8 next year.
Personal view programme suspended
RTHK has also run into trouble with personal views critical of police operations.
In April, the Communications Authority warned the broadcaster over its personal view programme Pentaprism, after it substantiated complaints that an episode contained inaccuracy, incitement of hatred to the police and unfairness. It featured a guest host who criticised the police handling of unrest around the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November last year.
Complaints about four other episodes which featured guest hosts commenting on police anti-protest operations were also substantiated in September. RTHK decided to suspend the programme in early August, before it received the warnings.
Partnership with police axed
Premiered in 1973, the weekly programmes Police Magazine and its English-language equivalent Police Report – co-produced by RTHK and Police Public Relations Branch – were axed in August.
The force said it had decided to use various social media channels to release information. RTHK said it was difficult to continue producing the programme without the force’s collaboration.
Since last month, an internally produced 15-minute programme OffBeat On Air has been live-streamed on the force’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Nabela Qoser probation extended
RTHK has also come under pressure to rein in reporters who ask “disrespectful” questions of senior officials.
In September, the public broadcaster reopened an investigation into Nabela Qoser, an assistant programme officer. Qoser provoked complaints from the public when she confronted the city’s leader Carrie Lam at a press conference after the July 21 Yuen Long mob attack on MTR travellers.
Lam was asked: “Did you learn about it only this morning? Were you able to sleep well last night?” and Qoser also asked her to “speak like a human.”
An initial investigation found that Qoser had done nothing wrong, but shortly before completing her three-year probation period, she was informed that it would be extended for another 120 days for further inquiries.
Union chair Gladys Chiu slammed the decision and said asking difficult questions should not hinder a reporter’s prospects of promotion or confirmation of employment. Lam refused to comment on the case, which she described as a human resources issue.
Review team set up, pressure by advisory board
In July the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau set up a dedicated team to review RTHK’s governance and management, following the Communications Authority’s findings of bias, inaccuracy and hostility to the police force.
The review aimed to ensure the broadcaster complied with the service charter and codes of practice on programming standards issued by the authority. Charles Mok, the lawmaker representing the IT sector, said he feared the review would compromise the station’s editorial and creative freedom.
In March, after receiving complaints from Police Commissioner Chris Tang about the Headliner episode, the RTHK Advisory Board chair Eugene Chan urged the director of broadcasting to rigorously follow up on the controversy.
The Staff Union chair said the board was interfering with individual productions in a high-profile manner.
Following the enactment of the security law, Chan also urged RTHK to produce programmes to educate the public about the new law and nurture their civic and national identity.
Acting deputy steps down, citing health reasons
The acting deputy director of broadcasting Kirindi Chan resigned in June after serving less than a year in the position. She cited health and personal reasons.
The broadcaster had come under fire for its decision to air a 20-episode TV programme on Beijing’s looming national security law for Hong Kong, after it reported that the government-appointed advisory board had instructed it to do so to ease public concerns.
Chan served more than 30 years at the broadcaster and had overseen numerous current affairs shows, but in her latest position she was not directly involved in the production of the controversial programmes.
Amen Ng, director of corporate communications and standards at RTHK, said Chan’s main duty was administration and the decision was not political.
‘Merge RTHK with gov’t PR dep’t’
After taking over as chair of the legislature’s IT and broadcasting panel, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho suggested the public broadcaster should be merged with the government’s Information Services Department.
Ho has been critical of the public broadcaster and said it was undesirable that the structures of the PR unit and of RTHK overlapped.