A Hong Kong court has partially upheld a decision made by the city’s communications regulator against government-owned broadcaster RTHK, which stated that it presented factual inaccuracies and denigrated the police force in a now-axed satirical show.

RTHK Headliner
RTHK’s Headliner has received complaints after airing a controversial episode. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) and RTHK Programme Staff Union jointly filed a judicial review of the Communications Authority’s (CA) warning against the show Headliner last August.

The authority ruled that an episode of Hong Kong’s longest running satirical programme included material considered to be denigrating or insulting to persons or groups on the basis of characteristics such as ethnicity or social status. It claimed it failed to represent a broad range of views, and did not make reasonable efforts to ensure factual accuracy.

The show in question included a sketch showing a doctor saying that medical staff were not given sufficient personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 epidemic, while police officers had an excess of gear. A second sketch, meanwhile, presented a man in a police uniform emerging from a rubbish bin saying he barely got any fresh air on duty since beat patrols were abolished.

‘Wrong impressions’

The CA’s decision was issued after it received 3,302 complaints about the episode – including two from the police chief – who alleged that it had provided false information about the force and “caused viewers to have wrong impressions,” misunderstandings, or a loss of confidence in the police.

RTHK Headliner Ng Chi-sum Tsang Chi-ho
Former Headliner hosts Ng Chi-sum (left) and Tsang Chi-ho (right). Filer Photo: RTHK screenshot.

In a ruling handed down on Thursday, the High Court upheld the regulator’s decision the material was denigrating or insulting to the police. However, it threw out the authority’s ruling that the show insufficiently presented a broad range of view points, and had failed to make reasonable efforts to ensure accuracy.

On the CA’s decision that RTHK denigrated or insulted the police, judge Anderson Chow wrote that, while the portrayal of a policeman emerging from a bin could be taken as an expression of the public’s dissatisfaction with the police’s professionalism, it “had no apparent link to any work of the Police or the public’s dissatisfaction with their professionalism, and seems to me to be targeting police officers as a group simply on account of their status.”

Chow then said the authority should have taken into consideration that RTHK made efforts to invite the police to explain their side of the story, to which it received no response. The allegation that the show did not present a broad range of views should not stand, the judge ruled.

Judge Anderson Chow Ka-ming
Anderson Chow Ka-ming. File photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile the judge struck down the CA’s consideration that the sketches did not respect facts, as the authority itself had “made no finding on [the first sketch’s] factual accuracy” despite bearing the burden to do so. Meanwhile, the court partially upheld the authority’s decision that RTHK had not made reasonable effort to ensure factual accuracy, as the show “neither contained any reference nor provided any information or evidence to support the statement that the Police had a surplus stock of surgical masks.”

Chow also rejected the unions’ submission that RTHK’s right to freedom of speech would be undermined, as “[i]t simply does not make legal sense to say that a government department (as distinct from the staff working in that department) has, or can enjoy, a right to freedom of expression.”

The broadcaster is meant to be editorially independent.

High Court judiciary
File Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

In concluding his judgement, Chow said it would not revert the matter back to the CA for fresh consideration, as there was no suggestion that the show would be revived.

RTHK axed production of Headliner last June, ending its 31 year history after receiving complaints.

In response to the judgement, the HKJA and the RTHK Programme Staff Union issued a joint statement saying that they “respect the court’s ruling” and would comment further after studying the decision with their lawyers. The ruling “served some degree of justice to the RTHK production crew, but it is a shame that Headliner no longer exists,” the statement read.

The reporter of this article is an executive committee member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

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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.