Hong Kong’s government-funded broadcaster RTHK has removed from its website a news report about Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a former top Chinese official of sexual assault. The move by the tax-payer funded outlet reflects treatment of the story in mainland China, where it has been censored.

Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Peng, who once topped the world doubles rankings and remains the only Chinese player to have done so, had alleged on social media that she was sexually assaulted by former vice premier Zhang Gaoli.

The allegation made headlines in international media and but was quickly scrubbed from the Chinese internet as Peng disappeared from the public eye, sparking concern from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and other celebrity players over her safety. China says the row is being “deliberately and maliciously” hyped up.

Story scrubbed

The headline of the RTHK original report cited “western media” as saying they had not been able to get in touch with Peng since early this month. The report also said Chinese media had published an email allegedly sent by Peng and reporting that she was resting at home, whose authenticity was questioned by the WTA chief.

First published online, the original report dated November 18 can no longer be found at its original address. A cached version of the page temporarily stored on Google – which allowed users to view former versions of webpages – was accessible as of Monday evening but could no longer be accessed on Tuesday.

Peng Shuai. File photo: Claude Truong-ngoc, via Flickr.

Whilst the row has made headlines around the world, many other local outlets have ignored it or have failed to mention the name of the accused.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, RTHK said on Tuesday that it “will not comment on the internal editorial matters” and “aspires to achieve accuracy.”

Last month, it refused to say why it deleted a story from its website about proposals for a new law criminalising insults against public officers.

Series of controversies

The deletion is the latest controversy since a new Director of Broadcasting with no previous media experience took the helm in March. Since then, RTHK has also scrubbed its online archivespurged and restricted its Twitter accountlaunched a chat show hosted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and issued directives to staff to use Beijing-approved wording.

Lam has also announced a partnership between the broadcaster and Chinese state media CCTV to air more mainland-produced shows to instil a sense of patriotism among Hong Kong viewers.

RTHK has seen an exodus of senior editorial staffers since the change in leadership, with ex-TV host and veteran journalist Steve Vines fleeing the city in August.

RTHK. File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In September, RTHK adopted new guidelines stating that it must “uphold” the constitution, whilst staff must avoid contact with foreign governments or political organisations. The public broadcaster pledged to prevent acts that endanger national security in the new editorial guidelines.

The changes come amid growing concern over the state of press freedom under the Beijing-imposed national security law as the authorities vow to roll out a “fake news” law. The city’s press group has warned press freedoms are “in tatters” after a crackdown on the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper.

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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.