Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK has axed another episode of a TV documentary series about online media financed by public donations, the programme’s production team said on Thursday.

After more than a month of vetting by station bosses, the axed episode – titled Hong Kong Connection: Journalist’s Wayout – was about how small independent media in Hong Kong financed by public donations seek to survive in the city’s media landscape. It featured interviews with Citizen News and HKFP.

rthk television house broadcast headquarters logo (1)
RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The episode was due to air on April 5, but was delayed in late March after management demanded the production team interview pro-establishment media as well. The production team rejected the request on the grounds that the outlets suggested by RTHK management do not accept donations.

According to the team, RTHK management also told them that their refusal to include interviews with pro-establishment media outlets amounted to “disobeying orders,” adding that they might hold the team accountable, including imposing fines, if the episode was not “impartial.”

RTHK said earlier in April that the government had the power to surcharge its employees under the Public Finance Ordinance, which means that the management may recover the production cost of axed programmes from the crew.

Fears viewers would ‘donate’

In a letter sent to interviewees, the production team said that RTHK management thought that the episode failed to show the “holistic” situation of digital media outlets, and suspected that the programme would help the two interviewed outlets draw in donations.

RTHK Hong Kong Connection
Hong Kong Connection is one of the RTHK programmes aired on free TV channels. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The team also apologised to the interviewees, and said that they will continue to “work hard and stick to our posts.”

“Our production team has fought hard during this month to have the [episode] aired, and has proactively communicated with management,” the letter read. “Grudgingly we could not change the result, [we] apologise here once again.”

The team also said that it was unclear whether the management has seen the footage of the episode, as the previous vetting was based on written reports and scripts.

Timeline of the events leading up to cancellation – click to open

The timeline of events, according to the production team:

Mid-March: The production team was asked to submit written outlines of shows scheduled to air in the coming two weeks, including Hong Kong Connection: Journalist’s Wayout.

March 22: RTHK management saw that interviewees of the episode included Citizen News and HKFP, and requested the team to also include pro-establishment “blue media” such as Speak Out HK. The production team rejected the request and explained that the episode was not political, and that the suggested outlets do not operate on public donations model.

March 23: The management team said that the production team’s refusal to include pro-establishment media was “defying orders,” and told the team to create a back-up show for the April 5 slot. Management also said that they might hold the team accountable, including imposing fines, if Hong Kong Connection: Journalist’s Wayout. was not “impartial.”

March 24: Management said that the April 5 slot was given to another team, the Education and Recreation Section.

March 31: The editing of Hong Kong Connection: Journalist’s Wayout was completed and the episode was sent for vetting. The show avoided mentioning the names and logos of the media outlets interviewed.

April 1: RTHK management said that the chief editors’ meeting had not discussed the episode, and told the team to put a hold on sound recording.

April 5: The production team followed up on the result of the vetting after the Easter holiday – RTHK management said they “had not discussed yet.”

April 8: Management said they did not have the time to watch the clip yet, but thought that the episode did not reflect the “holistic” situation of online media outlets based on the outlets previously submitted. They suspected that it would be a “conflict of interest” and may help the two outlets raise donations, asking the production team to “self-reflect”.

The team explained that the episode avoided promoting the interviewees, as per previous protocols for charities, shops, and doctors. The team also handed in a full written version of the episode on the same day.

April 18: Management said they had yet to discuss the episode – the production team submitted another written report explaining the content.

April 23: Management said again that the episode had a “conflict of interest,” and would help the outlets raise funds – it was unclear whether the management had seen the clip by this point.

April 29: Management informed the production team that Hong Kong Connection: Journalist’s Wayout had been “killed,” adding that there were “no reasons.”

10th cancellation

The Hong Kong Connection episode is the tenth cancellation after the Director of Broadcasting Patrick Li took office on March 1. RTHK has been under fire from the pro-Beijing camp over the past year for alleged biased reporting.

Hong Kong Connection, which airs on Mondays, is an award-winning feature and investigative documentary programme and is one of the city’s most trusted current affairs programmes.

Another episode of the programme about the 2019 Yuen Long Mob Attack won the Kam Yiu-yu Press Freedom Award last week, but RTHK have said that they will not accept the award.

Bao Choy press freedom
Journalist Bao Choy meets the press after she was found guilty of two counts of making false statements on April 22, 2021. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The producer of the show, Bao Choy, was convicted of knowingly making false statements when obtaining public vehicle licence plate records for the episode a day after the programme got the award. She was fined HK$6,000.

RTHK‘s previous chief resigned before his term expired and the current director has no broadcasting experience. Five senior officials have also quit the public broadcaster.

Earlier this week the station has announced a new show, The Election Commission Subsector View, featuring Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The daily show aired for the first time on Wednesday.

Update 30.04.2021: In a response to HKFP’s enquiries, RTHK Head of Corporate Communications & Standards Echo Wai said that “programme content and broadcast scheduling are internal editorial matters of RTHK. RTHK would not comment on individual programmes. According to the Charter, RTHK is editorially independent and we hope that its editorial decisions would be respected.”

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.