The head of Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK, Leung Ka-wing, has advised staff not to interview 53 democrats arrested this week under the national security law over their alleged involvement in a primary election organised by the pan-democrat camp last July.

The director of broadcasting made his remarks at the end of a meeting Thursday morning, Stand News reported, quoting unidentified staffers. The meeting was attended by three senior executives from the news and current affairs section in Chinese, and the public and current affairs section for television and radio.

Leung Ka-wing
Leung Ka-wing. Photo: Citizen News.

All but one of the 53 pro-democracy figures detained early Wednesday by almost 1,000 police officers were released on bail late Thursday. Authorities say the aim of last year’s primaries — to achieve a majority in the Legislative Council, veto budget bills and force the chief executive to quit under an existing mechanism — amounted to subversion. None have yet been charged.

RTHK is a taxpayer-funded department of the Hong Kong government but tries to remain impartial in its news coverage. It has come under fire from pro-Beijing figures for some of its reporting.

The RTHK Programme Staff Union issued a statement on Facebook Thursday evening after a meeting with Leung. It said he “clarified he was not ordering subordinates not to interview arrested persons, but was simply giving a kind reminder to production staff to work in accordance with existing editorial mechanisms, and proceed with caution.”

A member of the broadcaster’s contract staff told HKFP that reporters were “very agitated” as a result of Leung’s comments. Leung was said to have cited a section of RTHK producers’ guidelines, which cautions against running the risk of committing contempt of court by broadcasting material that might prejudice legal proceedings once they have started.

The guidelines state that this practice applies to the period “when proceedings are ‘active’. In most criminal cases the ‘active’ period starts with the arrest of a suspect or the issue of a summons.”

RTHK News Homepage
Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP

News media in Hong Kong generally refrain from reporting on a case from the period when charges are laid until a verdict is given, apart from covering the actual court proceedings. The gag period does not usually apply between the time of arrest and when people are charged. Media would also report information about or cite comments by the parties in a case, if the comments are unrelated to current proceedings.

At the meeting, Leung reportedly asked staff not to invite the arrested democrats for interviews or comments on any topic, whilst allowing passive reporting on the individuals. Staff voiced concerns that a large number of segments would have to be shelved, Stand News reported, such as the shows “City Forum” and “This Week,” whose formats require inviting guests on the show. An episode which interviewed Lawrence Lau prior to his arrest would also have to be pulled, staff said.

arrested democrats Jan 6
From L to R: Wu Chi-Wai, Lester Shum, Gwyneth Ho, Alvin Yeung, James To, Kwok Ka-ki, Lam Cheuk-ting, Eddie Chu, Ventus Lau, Benny Tai, Raymond Chan, Leung Kwok-hung. 53 democrats who participated and organised a primary election in July 2020 was arrested this week for violation of the national security law.

“The Union reiterates that colleagues will remain steadfast in their work and urges department heads not to speculate on their supervisors’ intentions and overreact, in order to avoid self-censorship which silences voices and damage the profession,” the union statement said.

In response to Stand News‘ enquiry, a spokesperson from RTHK said the director of broadcasting kindly reminded staff Thursday morning to be cautious in their reporting, due to the sheer number of those arrested and ambiguities in their bail applications.

Generally, the spokesperson said, the media should not publish interviews with a person charged relating to their case, during the time between their arrest and their trial.

HKFP has approached RTHK for comment.

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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.